37 Ellington Today – Always Hip

Ahmad Jamal

Every year dozens of top-flight musicians cover tunes from the biggest book in jazz – the Duke Ellington Songbook – with some 1100 entires. In this hour of Jazz at 100 Today!, we’ll listen to a few of the diverse responses to this body of work ranging from pianists Frank Kimbrough, Ahmad Jamal, Fred Hersch and Norah Jones to guitarists Dave Stryker and Mary Halverson, and trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Frank Kimbrough, Ahmad Jamal and Fred Hersch
Duke Ellington met Queen Elizabeth in 1958 and that evening sketched out the themes that became The Queen’s Suite, which he recorded in 1959 and sent to her, declining to release it during his lifetime. The suite, finally released in 1972, included a Billy Strayhorn collaboration, Single Petal of a Rose, recorded with Jimmie Wood on bass in a rare Ellington piano – bass duo. In his 2012 recording, Live at Kitano, Frank Kimbrough recorded the tune in a trio with Jay Anderson on bass and Matt Wilson softly caressing the traps. This beautiful performance is a sweet way to remember Kimbrough, who passed away on December 30, 2020.

Ahmad Jamal’s 2013 release, Saturday Morning, shows that he is still a master of the ballad form that has decorated his discography for the past 60 years. On AllAboutJazz, Ian Patterson writes, “For all his technical dexterity and passion, Jamal is never more at home than when caressing and teasing the melody of a ballad. There are a few to savor here, notably … Duke Ellington’s I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good, [on which], Jamal plays with the melody, letting it drift before gently rekindling the flame. Bass, brushes and percussion lend tender support. Jamal can’t resist quoting the melody to Take The A-Train here, and on numerous occasions throughout the album he exercises his penchant for quoting the popular melodies he has breathed for a lifetime.”

Fred Hersch has performed in many formats during his long and fruitful recording career, yet he consistently returns to the solo piano and his release simply titled, Solo, was his tenth such outing. Characteristically, his version of the familiar Juan Tizol collaboration, Caravan, finds new avenues for expression from evergreen material.

Single Petal of a Rose. Frank Kimbrough Trio
(Frank Kimbrough-p, Jay Anderson-b, Matt Wilson-d). From Live at Kitano. Palmetto. 2012.
I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good). Ahmad Jamal Quartet
(Ahmad Jamal-p, Reginald Veal-b, Herlin Riley-d, Manolo Badrena-per). From Saturday Morning. Jazz Village. 2013.
Caravan. Fred Hersch solo
(Fred Hersch-p). From Solo. Palmetto. 2015.

Dave Stryker with Jimmy Heath and Terell Stafford
Dave Stryker’s 2015 disc, Messin’ With Mr. T, is his tribute to his friend and mentor, Stanley Turrentine. For this project, Stryker supplemented his guitar – organ – drums – percussion quartet with 10 great tenor players, each bringing a unique attitude to the repertoire. For Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, then eighty-eight year-old Jimmy Heath shows his mastery of the tender ballad. Heath kept playing and made even more recordings up until his death at 93 in 2020.

Terell Stafford has, in recent years, recorded tribute discs to two of his heroes, Lee Morgan and Billy Strayhorn, both with his quintet of Tim Warfield on tenor and soprano, Bruce Barth on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Dana Hall on drums . His 2011 release, This Side of Strayhorn, includes a relaxed version of Ellington and Strayhorn’s Smada of which Dan McClenaghan wrote, “Warfield’s solo is warm and laidback, a no-worries-in-the-world affair in front of a saucy backdrop. Then Stafford takes his turn, gliding in with a gorgeous tone and a velvet flow of notes.”

In a Sentimental Mood. Dave Stryker Quartet with Jimmy Heath
(Jimmy Heath-ts, Jared Gold-org, Dave Stryker-g, McClenty Hunter-d, Mayra Casales-per). From Messin’ With Mr T. Strike Zone. 2015.
Smada. Terell Stafford Quintet
(Terell Stafford-tp/flh, Tim Warfield-ss/ts, Bruce Barth-p, Peter Washington-b, Dana Hall-d). From This Side of Strayhorn. Max Jazz. 2011.

Norah Jones with Wayne Shorter and Mary Halverson
Norah Jones was an instant star from her 2002 release, the piano-based and jazz-inflected Come Away with Me. After exploring other sounds to great commercial success, her sixth release, 2016’s Day Breaks, successfully returned to that sound to great critical success. Her performance of Ellington’s Fleurette Africaine (African Flower) pairs her piano and wordless vocal with Wayne Shorter on soprano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums.

In 2015, Mary Halverson released her first solo recording, Meltframe. As Dan Bilawsky writes, “It should come as no shock that Mary Halvorson’s first solo guitar album is a mind-bender. In the past, regardless of where she’s gone and who she’s gone with, Halvorson has managed to surprise by liberally mixing uncommonly aggressive assaults, open-ended exploration(s), and, on occasion, calm(ing) cogitation. Here, standing all by her lonesome, all three of those aspects are in play.” Her spare reading of Ellington’s Solitude, shows how versatile the maestro’s work is as it perennially inspires new music.

Fleurette Africaine (African Flower). Norah Jones Quartet
(Wayne Shorter-ss, Norah Jones-p/voc, John Patitucci-b, Brian Blade-d). From Day Breaks. Blue Note. 2016.
Solitude. Mary Halvorson solo
(Mary Halvorson-g). From Meltframe. Firehouse 12 Records. 2015

Ellington’s book is perhaps the most versatile and durable in the jazz canon, having provided inspiration for other musicians for almost 100 years. Recent years have been no exception and we can expect the legacy to live on.


Bilawsky, Dan.  (2012, October 17).  AllAboutJazz.  Frank Kimbrough Trio: Live At Kitano.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/live-at-kitano-frank-kimbrough-palmetto-records-review-by-dan-bilawsky.php

Patterson, Ian.  (2013, October 21).  AllAboutJazz.  Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/ahmad-jamal-saturday-morning-by-ian-patterson.php

McClenaghan, Dan.  (2015, August 31).  AllAboutJazz.  Fred Hersch: Solo.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/fred-hersch-solo-fred-hersch-palmetto-records-review-by-dan-mcclenaghan.php

Bowers, Jack.  (2015, March 17).  AllAboutJazz.  Dave Stryker: Messin’ With Mister T.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/messin-with-mister-t-dave-stryker-strikezone-records-review-by-jack-bowers.php

McClenaghan, Dan.  (2011, May 1).  AllAboutJazz.  Terell Stafford: This Side Of Strayhorn.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/this-side-of-strayhorn-terell-stafford-maxjazz-review-by-dan-mcclenaghan.php

Bilawsky, Dan.  (2015, August 8).  AllAboutJazz.  Mary Halvorson: Meltframe.  https://www.allaboutjazz.com/meltframe-mary-halvorson-firehouse-12-records-review-by-dan-bilawsky.php

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