Classical Music Review: New Releases


Pianist Bill Susman and bassist Tim Enos in works by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Jan. 14,  Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA.

Everyone is unique. And an individual style of dress, or tone of voice, a favorite word, or maybe just a gesture or a phrase can speak volumes. Composers are expected to be individual,  and we want them to tell us something funny or deep in an entirely personal way. The best have instantly identifiable sounds. Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and his "composing and arranging companion" Billy Strayhorn (1910-1967) have unique styles, but they complement each other too. Bay Area composer-pianist Bill Susman and his fluid bassist Tim Enos gave a thorough and thoroughly musical demonstration of their uniqueness and compatibility. And they had a lot to choose from: the Ellington-Strayhorn Songbook contains well over a thousand items, and with a tresure trove that rich you can afford to be selective. Susman and Enos chose 16 out of a possible 21 gems, and the pianist, in particular, stressed their harmonic similarities both in his remarks -- with musical examples -- and in his playing.

A device common to both composers is the frequent use of descending chromatic lines, usually in minor. The altered chords of Ellington's signature tune, "Take the "A" Train", which was actually written by Strayhorn in 1941 (he joined the band in '39), are a good example, and show how well he assimilated Duke's style. The "Black and Tan Fantasy" (1927) (trumpeter Bubber Mileyco-author) became, in this performance, a moody, majestic, "primitive" blues, which takes off from the funeral march slow movement in Chopin's Bb minor piano sonata #2, Op. 35.  Duke's style was steeped in the blues and the pair emphasized this feeling here and elsewhere in the program, with smooth, seductive playing, or by using jabbing single notes or chords. "C-Jam Blues" (1941) got the party treatment, and the 1946 "Just Squeeze Me", which was one of Ella Fitzgerald's big numbers, received requisite attention. And famous ballads like "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), the Strayhorn "DayDream" (1940) -- so chromatic here it was almost a nightmare -- and "Sophisticated Lady" (1932) with its flatted fifths (tritones)  were mined for their melancholy. And speaking of melancholy, the duo played Strayhorn's "Passion Flower" (1944) and "Chelsea Bridge" (1941), and there were those descending chromatics again.But our favorites were Ellington's 1937 "Caravan" (trumpeter Juan Tizol co-author), which displayed Susman's steady, heavy left hand vamp, and "Sunset and the Mockingbird" from "The Queen's Suite" (1959) -- written as a personal gift for Elizabeth II -- which showed the personal touches of both -- Strayhorn's static, impressionist colors, and Duke's ornamented, almost Oriental turns, which re-surfaced in his ballet for Alvin Ailey ballet The River (1970), and in other late works.A small, but entranced audience, listened intently, and applauded vociferously.

-Michael McDonagh
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