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Gene DiNovi infuses Duke Ellington's music with his own life

Tribute to Duke Ellington
Ottawa Chamberfest: Chamberfringe series

La Nouvelle Scène
Sunday, July 31, 2016 - 10 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Gene DiNovi is now 88 years old – a fine age for a pianist – but he's lost none of his verve or love of classic jazz, as was obvious in this concert's exploration of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's songbook.

Gene DiNovi used his own decades of experience to enhance his Chamberfringe tribute to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn ©Brett Delmage, 2016

DiNovi started playing in New York in the 1940s and moved to Toronto in 1972 – and has played with many major jazz names, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett. He was Lena Horne's accompanist for eight years, as he mentioned in this show when he introduced several Ellington numbers which he played with her.

He's also a frequent face at Chamberfest, playing everything from classical-jazz crossovers to last year's Kings of Swing (Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw) show. And one of his most frequent collaborators, for more than 30 years, has been clarinetist James Campbell, who is most renowned for his classical work but also enjoys playing jazz.

For this show they teamed up with drummer Glenn Anderson and celebrated bassist Dave Young – also their frequent collaborators – as well as jazz violinist Drew Jurecka. It wasn't the first time they'd played this material this summer; they'd also been featured at Campbell's Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound the previous week.

Whether it was from these musicians' evident popularity with Chamberfest audiences, or the inherent appeal of Ellington's music, the 173-seat hall was overflowing. We arrived early and barely found seats. Chamberfest volunteers continued adding chairs near the front but finally had to give up. The last 30-odd listeners were left sitting in the outside foyer watching the show on a video screen – and they filled up all the chairs there, too!

From the beginning, it was a warm and happy audience, listening intently and applauding frequently and strongly throughout the 90-minute show.

DiNovi added a skip in his step as he strolled to the piano, and started the show off with a light-hearted number: “Tomorrow Mountain” from the Broadway show Beggar's Holiday, for which Ellington wrote the music. It was the song Lena Horne used to open her shows; DiNovi matched bright, syncopated piano to the cheerful lyrics, which allowed him to sing about kitchens made of gold, rain showers of Chanel #5, and clouds made of marmalade and jam.

I didn't feel that the Tin Pan Alley lyrics matched the high quality of the instrumental, although DiNovi sang them with conviction – and would have to say the same for the lyrics for the later “Jump for Joy”, which were equally hackneyed.

Next, Jurecka joined DiNovi, Young, and Anderson on stage, for a satisfyingly sizzling version of “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)”. Playing the melody mostly through bowing, Jurecka also added a few pizzicato riffs for emphasis, with the others driving the strong swinging rhythm.

Campbell then came on stage to introduce the next number, “Mood Indigo”, which was co-written by Ellington and one of Campbell's musical heroes, clarinetist Barney Bigard. The quintet gave it a rich, nuanced presentation, with subtle solos on both clarinet and violin, and deep inflected notes on double bass. At one point, Jurecka was playing his bow around his violin body for an deeper vibrating sound. It ended softly, with intertwining lines on clarinet and violin, and inspired strong applause.

Dave Young introduced “In a Mellow Tone” with a strong bass line, filling in the melody while DiNovi ornamented it with light piano, and Anderson filling in spaces with atmospheric snares and cymbals. Unlike most renditions of that tune, this one turned into a bass/piano duet, with the two in constant communication visually and musically, and ended satisfyingly with one long final note on the bass ringing out.

“Caravan” featured drummer Glenn Anderson in an opening drum solo which contrasted deep bass drum thumps with light echoing brushwork on snares and toms. Its circling rhythms were taken up by Jurecka on violin and Campbell on clarinet, and the quintet gave its theme a fast-moving workout with bluesy undertones.

Throughout the show, DiNovi told stories about the tunes – how, for example, “Cop-Out” was written at the last moment to fill out the LP of the Shakespearian music Ellington had written for the Stratford Festival; how he saw Ellington and his band – with Ben Webster still in his pajamas – preparing for a show in 1949, at a gig he hadn't realized that band he was in would be sharing with Ellington; and how he almost drove off the road the first time he heard “The Star-crossed Lovers” on the radio. That last song featured Jurecka in a new role – playing alto sax, pouring the melody out over the rhythm section.

The concert showed off both the fast, upbeat side of Ellington's music – for example, “Rockin' in Rhythm” and “Jump for Joy” – but also more romantic, thoughtful pieces by Ellington and his fellow composer, Billy Strayhorn.

Sitting alone at the piano, DiNovi explained he got to know Strayhorn because Strayhorn was a close friend of Lena Horne's. The first tune which Strayhorn played for Ellington was his composition, “Lush Life” – which got him hired on the spot and it became a classic. It's a song which DiNovi loves but doesn't underestimate: “It's the sort of tune you have to play three times a day or else you lose sync on it. It's so intriguing in the changes it makes within it.”

Playing without sheet music, DiNovi became totally immersed in “Lush Life”, moving from its dramatic opening to its delicate and melancholy middle section and its final few glinting notes. It was a beautiful and evocative rendition, though not extended, and the crowd responded with intense applause.

I was even more impressed with Campbell and DiNovi's version of “Come Sunday”. They approached it reverently and with grace, with slow, full lines on clarinet soaring over intricate patterns on piano. Its heart-achingly beautiful melody was gently explored, ending quietly.

After a punctuated and high-energy (full of 16th and 32nd notes) “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”, DiNovi re-introduced the band, and they bowed and left the stage – to a standing ovation. They came back for one last number, the classic “Take the 'A' Train”. They played it with vigor and style and ended with a six-part flourish – receiving another standing ovation.

The quintet certainly captured the melodicism and complexity of Duke Ellington's and Billy Strayhorn's music – but not, I thought, quite all of its excitement. Perhaps it was because each number was kept relatively short, with less room for stepping out? While they definitely swung hard on the upbeat numbers, I felt there could have been more drive and intensity, particularly from Jurecka, whose 2015 Chamberfest show was more dynamic.

Nevertheless, it was a well-performed celebration of Ellington and Strayhorn, interestingly informed by DiNovi's own career, and a reminder of that music's timelessness and loveliness.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  • Tomorrow Mountain
  • It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
  • Mood Indigo
  • Cop-Out
  • In a Mellow Tone
  • The Star-crossed Lovers
  • Rockin' in Rhythm
  • Lush Life
  • Jump for Joy
  • Come Sunday
  • Caravan
  • I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart
  • Take the 'A' Train

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