Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Di Martino: "Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn"

John di Martino Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn Sunnyside SSC 4114
When a talented and seasoned musician like the exceptional pianist/composer/arranger John Di Martino takes a moment to create a new album under his leadership, it deserves attention. DiMartino’s latest release is titled Passion Flower, a thoughtful compilation of the music of Billy Strayhorn. 

John’s playing incorporates superb sensitivity, admirable facility, and an assured poise that allows him to extract the best qualities of the soul and spirit of these fine compositions.  Di Martino sums up his approach to playing, I “surrender to the ecstasy of making music… if I can feel that joy then I can also transfer that joy to the audience!” 

Strayhorn’s work is a cache of gems. With John’s imagination and his attuned band of tenorist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Lewis Nash and vocalist Raul Midón, these memorable compositions are reimagined and revitalized in new and surprisingly delightful ways.

The sixty-one-year-old Di Martino hails originally from Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” like so many other notable jazz artists of the last half a century. His piano playing has been influenced by a diverse group of iconic pianists including Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and Horace Silver. He mastered his craft by studying with the enigmatic pianist/educator Lennie Tristano, pianist Jimmie Amadie, a Woody Herman alumnus, and with noted pianist and arranger Don Sebesky.  

Di Martino made his way to New York in 1988 after honing his skills for years as the keyboard player for a house band of a casino in Atlantic City. This “showtime” experience exposed him to a myriad of musical styles, genres, and international influences.

Di Martino’s musical skills permit him to “shapeshift,” - seamlessly adapting his playing to the requirements of the music at hand. No wonder he developed such chameleon abilities as he has found himself playing and arranging for such diverse talents as Houston Person, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Jack Sheldon, David “Fat Head” Newman, George Mraz and Joe Lovano. 

Over the years he has become a sought after accompanist and arranger for such proven vocalists as Billy Eckstein, Giacomo Gates, Janis Siegel, Grady Tate, Gloria Lynn, and Freddy Cole. His inherent street-wise affinity for Latin music was refined by his stint with Panamanian flutist Marisco Smith. He later toured with Latin percussionist and bandleader Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit Big Band for several years. and continues that love for Latin music, continuing his present work with the distinguished clarinetist master Paquito D’Rivera.

Billy Strayhorn photo credit unknown

On the new cd, Passion Fruit, the music of Billy Strayhorn is a unifying theme, but Di Martino and his bandmates always seem to present the music in new and exciting ways. Take the opening “Johnny Come Lately” which is launched by a strutting bass line by Boris Koslov before the group enters the pace with a jaunty swing that is infectious. Di Martino’s piano skills are immediately on display as he probs the ascending and descending spirit of this melody. Tenor master Eric Alexander adds his own signature warm tone and the trap master Lewis Nash creates a swirl of inventive percussive enthusiasm. You cannot help but get drawn in by this band’s enthusiasm for the music.

Billy Strayhorn reportedly wrote his sophisticated masterpiece “Lush Life” at the age of sixteen, an almost unimaginable feat. The song is coveted for its lyrical maturity and musical complexity. Strayhorn originally debuted it with vocalist Kay Davis at Carnegie Hall in 1948. The composition challenges the vocalist with quick changes. It commands the singer to precisely execute slides and leaps, all the while maintaining a debonair, sagacious sensibility of forlorn. Notably successful recordings of this song have included a version by baritone Johnny Hartman, collaborating with saxophonist John Coltrane and a superb take recorded by chanteuse Sarah Vaughan. But even an iconic vocalist like Frank Sinatra, working to record this song with the great Nelson Riddle in 1958, was unsatisfied with his attempts to successfully navigate the complex changes and abandoned recording the song, never to make it part of his repertoire.

A sought after accompanist for countless vocalists of all types, John di Martino has developed his own inherent sixth sense of what makes a vocalist suited to render a specific composition. Here, his sensitive duet with the emotive vocalist Raul Midón is a stunningly effective treatment of this pensive Strayhorn classic. Di Martino’s yearning piano- expressive, complimentary but never overwhelming- creates the perfect tableaux for Midón’s expressive voice. Together they bring to life Strayhorn’s disheartening words and one would be hard-pressed to find a more genuinely moving rendition of this beautiful composition. Easily, this alone is worth the price of admission.

“Rain Check” opens with a slick, tight-brushed snare entry by Nash and features some mellifluous tenor work by Alexander that swells and ebbs with the changes. Di Martino’s piano solos always firmly guide you through the stated melody, but he can add short familiar musical ideas tangentially that he weaves into the music flawlessly.

John Di Martino photo by The Cuban Bridge
“Star-Crossed Lovers” is a gorgeous slow-paced composition that is played with delicate restraint as an expressive vehicle for both Alexander and Di Martino. Alexander’s tenor, at his best, is tonally burnished, emotively strong but purposefully subdued for emphasis. Di Martino’s piano is warm and shimmers with a beauty and sensitivity that radiates from his ability to find that joy in the music he is always looking for.

“Isfahan” is one of my favorite Strayhorn compositions. I have heard tenor master Joe Henderson play this one to great effect. Di Martino utilizes Alexander’s precise and gorgeous intonation and Kozlov’s plucky bass to make this one special. Di Martino creates an inventive solo that works so well over the strong walking bass lines and Nash’s subtle snare and cymbal driven pace. The group trades solos and the interaction of these simpatico musicians is a treat.

The remaining album is a cornucopia of expertly played Strayhorn classics. The slow languishing “Chelsea Bridge” delights and the imaginative “Daydream” is lively and uplifting. Drummer Lewis Nash creates a precise cadenced pulse for the exotic “Passion Flower,” with Alexander’s deep-throated tenor being featured as the lead voice. Di Martino’s piano and the rhythm section are predominantly adding deft accompaniment, judicially applied aural accents to the music, as Alexander is given the stage to subtly explore harmonic ideas on his saxophone. When Di Martino solos, he carves himself out a brief musical path, a flurry of gorgeous lines that seem to just dance with the melody.

“U.M.M.G.” is a more obscure composition that is one of the more energetically driven paces on the album. The cd also includes the Ellington Orchestra’s memorable “Take the A Train” and the middle eastern-inspired “Absinthe,” with some of Di Martino’s most inventive improvisations and Alexander stretching out. 

“A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is one of Strayhorn’s more romantic compositions, as is the final cut “Lotus Blossom.” It’s great to hear John take the time to feature himself as a soloist on these gorgeous songs. Di Martino has a mastery of his keyboard with a skilled touch and an inventive harmonic grasp of how to make the songs draw out the best of the composer’s intentions.

“Blood Count” was the last composition written by Strayhorn at a time when the composer discovered that he was struck with terminal cancer.  The music drips of melancholy, almost desperation and was written specifically to be played by Ellington altoist Johnny Hodges. Perhaps one of the most memorable renditions of this music was recorded later by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who made the song one of the signature pieces of his repertoire. 

Di Martino smarty employs Alexander’s Getzian tone to bring out the sheer forlornness that the music evokes, and the tenorist plays with impressive emotion and depth.  Pairing these two musicians on this aching composition is a testimony to their affinity. Hopefully, this collaboration will be explored in the near future. The performance is one of the cd’s highlights, with Di Martino and Alexander together, artfully extracting some of the essences of Strayhorn’s most empathetic music. 

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