The African Flower
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The only drawback is that this CD is no longer available. Please, Blue Note, reissue this 5-star album!
Ellington will always be avant-garde. The man was too sophisticated, too knowledgeable, too damn elegant to belong to any one mere era. There are several CDs from the 80s that put those facts on plain display. One was the World Saxophone Quartet's Ellington CD and the other was this bad boy.
Savor the personnel for a moment. On all selections but Sophisticated Lady we have the following:
James Newton- flute and arrangements
John Blake- violin
Arthur Blythe- alto sax
Olu Dara- cornet
Sir Roland Hanna- piano
Jay Hoggard- vibraphone
Rick Rozie- bass
Anthony Brown- maracas and hand cymbals
Billy Hart or Pheeroan Aklaff- drums depending on the selection. They both play on Virgin Jungle.
In addition, Milt Grayson, provides iconic vocals on Strange Feeling. I am not much of a fan of singers. I much prefer to listen to instrumentalists. It is just one of my many failings. There are however several performances that I find endlessly enjoyable in the jazz realm. Almost anything by Billie Holiday but especially Strange Fruit, Leon Thomas on The Creator Has a Master Plan and this one by Grayson among others. Grayson's voice is so rich, his phrasing so evocative of the meaning of the words that I could almost believe that Strayhorn wrote these lyrics with him in mind.
Which brings up one of the many strengths of this CD. Look at that personnel list again. We have an octet of alto, flute, violin and cornet playing off a rhythm section of piano, vibraphone, bass and drums. But more importantly it is these particular men playing alto, piano, bass, etc.
Arthur Blythe is perfect as a modern facsimile for Johnny Hodges. They both play with a very pure and unique tone on their horns. Sir Roland Hanna plays with both power and an encyclopedic harmonic knowledge. Rick Rozie, who I am not really familiar with, is a monster on this set. He reminds me of Mingus in the way he pushes the whole band. And Newton is one of a kind on his instrument. Listen to his solo performance on Sophisticated Lady.
People, I am standing and testifying on this one. This is a great CD for any sort of jazz listener. When as fine a mind and as fine a performer as James Newton wrestles with the music of the daunting Ellington only a graceful and elegant greatness can result.