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by Seth Colter Walls

November 11, 2013

Late Night Piano: Duke Ellington

by Seth Colter Walls  |  November 11, 2013

Whether you're entertaining a group, cooking dinner or relaxing with a drink, what's better company than piano music in the after-work hours? We say nothing, so this week we're giving you the chance to unwind with a set of key solo sides and small-group cuts by Duke Ellington. The maestro didn't often put his piano front and center during recording sessions, but the same suave smarts he put to use in leading his orchestra were often in evidence when he did.

Click play on our mix, and sample 40 years of the Duke's astonishing activity. The second part of a 1932 medley holds a dizzying feature for the pianist (subtitled "Lot O' Fingers"); his 1972 solo concert Live at the Whitney brings several gems, among them a solo transcription of his orchestra piece "New World A-Coming," plus a fragment of the otherwise unheard early composition "Soda Fountain Rag."

The Duke's most famous small-group session has to be Money Jungle, his trio date with (wild-sounding) bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. Playlist opener "Very Special" is a hot blues number, while "Fleurette Africaine" shows this trio could lace the Duke's ballads with a strange energy, too. Two more key ballads -- "Retrospection" and "Reflections in D" -- come from 1953 sessions that made up Ellington's Piano Reflections LP.

Plenty of other treats abound in the mix, such as duo jams with bassist Jimmy Blanton ("Mr. J.B. Blues"), a miniature piano-and-orchestra item ("Blues in Orbit") and "Tonk," an early piano duet between the Duke and his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. After the medley from 1932, our playlist closes with a suite of six solo piano arrangements that Ellington derived from his late ballet, The River. Enjoy, and come back next week for some more late night piano.

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