In early 1943, the Duke Ellington Orchestra began an extended stay at the Hurricane Restaurant in New York on 49th St. and Broadway. During the orchestra's engagement that June, the band performed Tonight I Shall Sleep for the first time, a song Ellington had composed only weeks earlier. The ballad was written to spotlight tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who delivered a full-bodied, patient solo almost nightly, bringing down the house. Grant Stewart can relate. The tenor saxophonist includes the piece on his new Ellington tribute album, and the song easily is one of the CD's most brilliant tracks. [Photo of Grant Stewart by Esther Cidoncha]
On Grant Stewart Plays the Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Grant takes the song as seriously as Webster did, topping his own version recorded on Made in France in 2005 by slowing it down and digging in. Interestingly, Tonight I Shall Sleep was one of Webster's last showcase numbers with the Ellington orchestra. Friction between Ellington and Webster mounted during the early summer of 1943 over pay. The bickering reached a head on August 8, when Webster abruptly quit the band. Rather than have Webster's replacement solo on Tonight I Shall Sleep, Ellington had Al Hibbler handle the vocal. [Pictured: Duke dining with his wife Bea and a friend in April 1943 at the Hurricane Restaurant]
Grant's latest release—his fourth for the Sharp Nine label—is yet another confident outing for the Toronto native. There's something about Grant's playing that gets me every time. He has managed to distill 50 years of tenor history into his horn, complete with tasteful streaks of Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. Yet despite his influences, Grant always winds up with a modern sound that's all his own. Grant can romp in the lower register effortlessly or pick up the pace with flawless runs and timing. Both are exhilarating.
On this album, we get to hear pianist Tardo Hammer in a completely different mode. Known for his superb bebop attack, Tardo here employs lush chord changes behind Grant that are reminiscent in places of Red Garland. And his rich solos during the breaks are just as impressive as his delicate chord choices on accompaniment. [Photo of Tardo Hammer by Nina D'Allesandro]
There are only eight tracks on this CD, but each is a superb Ellington rendition. Two of the eight are Ellington/Strayhorn warhorses: Raincheck and Something to Live For. There also are two that Ellington wrote with Irving Mills: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and It Don't Mean a Thing.
But the album's best choices, in addition to Tonight I Shall Sleep, are the lesser-known works: Angelica, a perky tune first recorded on Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; The Star-Crossed Lovers, a steady ballad written by Ellington and Strayhorn for Ellington's 1957 recording, Such Sweet Thunder; and The Feeling of Jazz, a loping blues that appeared on a 1962 album of the same name and featured alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. The song is credited to Ellington, George Simon and Bobby Troup.
Grant and Tardo are backed by Joe Farnsworth [pictured], a high-intensity drummer who snaps with electricity on the up-tempo tunes and lays back elegantly on the tender tracks, and bassist Paul Gill, who recorded most recently with pianist David Hazeltine.
JazzWax tracks: Grant Stewart Plays the Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (Sharp Nine) is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon and as a CD here.
Ben Webster blowing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on Tonight I Shall Sleep is a must. You'll find it as a download at iTunes on Duke Ellington: At the Hurricane. Or as an Amazon download and CD here.