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Nancy Walker explores Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn's rich, timeless music this weekend

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Nancy Walker knows the appeal of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. When she played in the John Geggie Trio anchoring the Ottawa Jazz Festival's late-night jams for more than a decade, Ellington and Strayhorn's compositions and arrangements were regularly performed.

Nancy Walker (photo by Chris Hutcheson)“Those tunes are great tunes for players to cut their teeth on because they're quite complex, really. And so interesting to play, and very beautiful. Depending on who would get up and sit in, it might have been one of the more well-traveled tunes like 'Caravan' or it might have been something a little deeper into the archives: 'Chelsea Bridge' or tunes along that line.”

And, while she's not returning for the festival jam sessions this year, the Toronto-area jazz pianist will be back in Ottawa this weekend. Together with her husband, bassist Kieran Overs, she'll be at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge on Friday and Saturday night, celebrating Ellington and Strayhorn.

Although Walker is better known as a composer of her own music, she says she enjoys playing Ellington's and Strayhorn's tunes because “for one thing, there's very little cliché in there. In both cases, when they write together and individually, Ellington compositions and Strayhorn compositions, the melodies are so interesting. Like interesting intervallically.

“And the mood that's created: there's such a sense of mood, and that mood can of course vary. The tunes almost play themselves: the mood is such a big part of the music. And these amazing melodies and just interesting harmony/melody combinations and so on – they're challenging and they're rich. They're really rich. It always feels new, their material. Very timeless.”

No horns?

The shows are part of drummer Michel Delage's monthly tribute series at Brookstreet to well-known composers in the jazz canon. Walker, Overs, and Delage will be joined by Ottawa master guitarist Roddy Ellias – producing a very different line-up than the usual Ellington tribute.

Duke Ellington was one of the great big band leaders and jazz composers of the 20th century. Both he and Billy Strayhorn (his fellow composer and arranger whom Ellington described as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine”) played piano, but they primarily wrote for a full big band and showcased many great jazz horn players, such as Johnny Hodges and Clark Terry

So most tributes to Ellington include at least a saxophonist or trumpeter – or many. Will not having a horn player limit what this quartet can play?

“I don't think it limits it at all, actually,” Walker said. “I think that, if anything, it's going to give it a fresh, contemporary take. That was part of the idea – that rather than go with the stereotypical instrumentation this time, say with a saxophonist or horns plural, I actually thought it would be great to do it with a guitar-piano combination like this.

“I especially asked Michel, 'Do you think we can get Roddy?' because it would be great to play with Roddy. I've never done an entire gig playing together. I know he's played with Kieran over the years – Kieran loves Roddy, and I love Roddy, personally – but we just haven't played together as much as I'd like to.”

“Basically, we have melody and harmony and rhythm and they're all going to be there” in this line-up, Walker said, with her and Ellias sometimes playing in unison, sometimes taking the lead on different tunes, or sometimes “dividing the head, the A and B sections.”

Impossible to play all of the abundance of Duke Ellington's and Billy Strayhorn's music

Walker has played a number of tributes to Ellington and Strayhorn for The Duke Ellington Society in Toronto, most recently last December with Overs, saxophonist Pat LaBarbara, and drummer Morgan Childs.

“I had always thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it a great chance to play some of the familiar stuff, and also dig a little deeper into the repertoire to find some things that were fresh and that people didn't do. The Duke Ellington Society, these people are obviously so familiar with all of Ellington's material that they were always delighted to have some less-familiar, less-frequently-played material performed for them.

“And we would change things up a little bit – perhaps play a ballad as a waltz, or play a swing tune as a bossa nova. But otherwise the tunes play themselves, and they're so interesting as they are.”

So when Delage contacted her in January about doing a show and asked her for suggestions for composers, “that was one of my suggestions because I just thought this was so great and worked so well, we could give that a go. And Michel was right into it.”

The tunes almost play themselves: the mood is such a big part of the music. And these amazing melodies and just interesting harmony/melody combinations and so on – they're challenging and they're rich. They're really rich. It always feels new, their material.
– Nancy Walker

Ellington was the most prolific composer of the twentieth century in terms of both number of compositions and variety of forms, in a career that lasted more than fifty years.

That means that, while everyone might have heard of Ellington's “In a Sentimental Mood” or Strayhorn's “Take the 'A' Train”, there are many Ellington/Strayhorn tunes which aren't showcased as often.

“It's an interesting exercise in itself: if you go on the Internet and look up Duke Ellington compositions, there are like 16 pages of titles, alphabetized, and many of these it's like, “What, I've never heard of this, never heard of this, never heard of this.” Actually, Pat LaBarbara is a fantastic archivist of all kinds of repertoire from the Great American Songbook, and he introduced me to an Ellington song called “Le Sucre Velours” and there's another one called “Low Key Lightly” [from the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder]. I don't know if we'll do those at this juncture, but just to give you an idea.

“There's a lot of material out there that could be explored, and would be fresh for everybody, players and listeners alike, I'm sure. Just the volume of it is amazing.”

Even for this weekend's shows, “the main tunes that we've carved out as our main set list is actually longer than we could play in one night. You could literally play for a week, I think, and not repeat any material, doing a couple sets a night.”

Less common-tunes they may perform include “My Little Brown Book”, and “Angelica” (aka “Purple Gazelle”) – “a pretty cool tune. It's usually done calypso-swing-calypso”.

“Roddy Ellias is bringing in a tune called 'Single Petal of a Rose', which is totally new one for me.”

The songs will be from all eras of Ellington, she said: “all over the map, as far as the familiar and the less-familiar. ... There are tunes that people just love and they're going to want to hear, and we're going to be prepared to play those. Some people may request things and we'll just dive into them, I'm sure.”

The quartet will also perform at least one piece from the many full-length works that Ellington and Strayhorn concentrated on later in their careers: “Isfahan” from The Far East Suite.

A subconscious influence, or none?

Walker said she was first introduced to Duke Ellington's music in Grade 9, by her high school band teacher, John Macdonald, who also played with Rob McConnell. “He brought in films and recordings. And so we listened to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and all the greats. He also exposed us to more current figures to some degree as well. He was a great educator.

But, while she has performed Ellington's and Strayhorn's music for many years, she didn't think it directly influenced her as a composer.

“Honestly, I can't say that it has, unless it's been subconsciously. The melodic aspect, for example, I aim to do similar things. Whether or not it was under their influence I'm not sure. I aim to write interesting melodies, and think about interesting leaps not having things be necessarily easily singable. But I can't say honestly that I was influenced as a composer by them. As I've gone along, I have a great appreciation; any influence, I think, was subliminal.”

Branching out into choral music

Walker released her seventh album as a leader, 'Til Now Is Secret, in 2014, containing all original compositions for her quintet. She showcased it to an appreciative audience at this year's Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival.

She's currently deciding what CD project to do next, she said, and continuing to write material for her quintet, and more generally. “Sometimes when I compose it's for a specific purpose, like a specific group or a specific project, and then other times it's strictly looking at melody/harmony/rhythm, and then I can arrange that material for whatever ensemble I might be working in or solo piano or duo even."

And she has one, very different, outside project. “One thing that is really interesting is that I've been approached by an organization who are presenting ... it's hard to describe what it is, but essentially a musical presentation to depict the story of the Mississauga Indians who were displaced from their land. And so I'm writing the music for that project and it's not jazz per se. I don't know what you'd call it, kind of new music. It's choral music.”

The show will be in the workshop phase in July, so she didn't expect it to be complete for a couple of years.

And she's looking forward to being back in Ottawa this weekend. “It's been a second home for me, musically speaking, for so many years. I'm sure there will be a number of familiar faces and it will be great to see them and touch base. I'm really looking forward to playing with Michel and Roddy.”

Brookstreet jazz tribute series resumes in July and in the fall

After this weekend, the Brookstreet tribute series will take a break in June for the jazz festival. But Delage said it will be back on July 10 and 11, with Toronto alto saxophonist Allison Au and pianist Todd Pentny. The composer they'll be paying tribute to hasn't yet been chosen, he said.

The series has been renewed by Brookstreet for the fall, he said, but with only one (not two) shows a month for the months of September to December.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read past OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Nancy Walker, and the Brookstreet jazz tribute series: