LINER NOTES BY DAVID BERGER
I was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle a few days ago, and there it was again: “Duke Ellington’s ‘Take The ____.” I get that “A” Train was popularized by Ellington as his theme song, but isn’t it about time for the world to catch on to possibly the greatest relationship in all of music. Ellington never failed to mention that his band’s signature piece was composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn, but audiences didn’t want to hear it. They saw Ellington—the urbane, classy pianist and bandleader. They never saw the shy diminutive Swee’ Pea. And so it is only fitting and long overdue that Nancy Valentine treats us to an entire CD of a dozen of Strayhorn’s songs.
In addition to Strays’ classic subway train ride, this collection also avoids the other frequently performed, but most uncommon, Lush Life. Nine of these lesser-known songs have lyrics by Strayhorn. When Ellington hired Strays in 1938, part of the job description was to write lyrics. Unfortunately, this immense talent took a back seat as soon as the Maestro realized that he could depend on his alter ego to compose and arrange whatever musical material the band needed. If you don’t recognize the titles of Pretty Girl and the last three songs in this collection, it’s because they were originally instrumental classics. The lyrics were added later.
Although every one of these songs was composed between 50 and 80 years ago, in the hands of Nancy and the musicians they sound as if they were written today. From the tongue-in-cheek You Better Know It to the romantic Pretty Girl (aka: The Star-Crossed Lovers) and the heartbreaking life-and-death struggle of My Flame Burns Blue (aka: Blood Count), each song has its own unique well-drawn character with challenging melodic contours and chromatic harmonies—a virtual graduate course for aspiring songwriters—those who aspire to write the most sophisticated music. Billy Strayhorn was the poster boy for sophistication in every way. Ellington described himself as a primitive. Strays exuded sophistication sartorially, gastronomically, behaviorally and artistically.
There is a reason why these 12 songs are rarely if ever performed: they are difficult to sing and play. The music is complex and demands a high level of musicianship and preparation. Kudos to Nancy, arrangers John di Martino and Tamir Hendelman and all the performers for treating this music with respect and creativity. It is no easy task to resist being intimidated by such superior material. How often do we hear bland, mediocre versions of great songs because the arrangers and players were afraid to put their own personal stamp on a masterpiece?
The 14 different top-flight brand name jazz musicians appearing on this collection back Nancy up in different combinations ranging from the piano/voice duo of Pretty Girl to the septet on You’re The One. Nancy’s concept for the project was to create a diverse assortment of approaches treating each song individually and let her voice and Strayhorn’s songs be the glue that binds it all together. At times she becomes one of the instruments, but she is always listening to them and interacting in a way that you rarely hear singers do.
Over the last few years Nancy has been obsessed with the Strayhorn repertoire. She performs it whenever and wherever she can. In the process it’s become her music.
Composer, Arranger, Band Leader, Producer, Author