Pianist John Di Martino and Stellar Quartet Honor Billy Strayhorn on ‘Passion Flower’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

It’s been over years fifty now since we lost Billy Strayhorn, one of the most important composers of the twentieth century and yet his compositions keep appearing on so many recordings this writer has covered lately, some on these pages and some on others. Philadelphia-born pianist and composer John Di Martino is a 45-year career veteran, who, like so many others, is steeped in the many contributions Strayhorn left us. Di Martino, also an arranger and record producer, is now based in NYC and has released 15 of his own albums as a leader prior to this respectful set of 14 of Strayhorn’s most beloved compositions on Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn.

Di Martino’s quartet features one of today’s best tenor saxophonists, the versatile Eric Alexander who is also a bandleader and was a vital sideman for the late Harold Mabern (see Mabern Plays Mabern posted here last month). Boris Kozlov is the bassist and Lewis Nash is on drums with Raul Midon delivering a sterling vocal on “Lush Life,” (accenting the lyrics that seem incredible when considering that Strayhorn wrote them at the age of 15). Strayhorn, of course, became an integral part of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in terms of both compositions and arrangements and later became a vital partner to Lena Horne in her career. Some of these tunes will be familiar to listeners through those two artists, and indeed at least eight of these 14 are generally regarded in Strayhorn’s top ten songs. These are, for the most part, his most well-known tunes.

The major soloists on the disc are, of course, Di Martino and Alexander, each proving to be fiery and explosive on the swing tunes and reverently tender on the ballads. They do get inventive and stretch out within the context of Strayhorn’s melodic structures, beginning with “Johnny Come Lately,” which also has some vigorous dialogue and soloing from Nash. Midon’s vocal on the oft-covered “Lush Life,” is a sublime treasure, as he treads a line between Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman, to name two other iconic vocal treatments of the tune. Naturally, a cooking version of “Rain Check” follows.

The quartet gives” Star-crossed Lovers” a bossa nova treatment and an extended, spirited performance on “Isfahan,” made famous by Ellington with Johnny Hodges’ alto solo on 1967’s Far East Suite. The ballads are done especially superbly including one of Strayhorn’s most tender ones, “Chelsea Bridge,” which proves to be a great showcase for Alexander’s emotive lines and superior tenor tone as is the title track. There is also a haunting duo performance of Alexander and Di Martino on “Blood Count,” the last tune Strayhorn composed before his far-too-soon passing at age 52). Di Martino also delicately and gorgeously renders solo “A Flower Is a Lonesome Thing” (made famous by Horne) and “Lotus Blossom.” These are balanced with plenty of combustible up-tempo fare such as “Daydream” in ¾ time, the rollicking “U.M.M.G.,” of course, “Take the ‘A’ Train” and the lesser-known “Absinthe.”

Please take the time to visit other recordings from Di Martino, Alexander and the other quartet members. Also, you may want to check some recent Strayhorn fare from the vocalist Clairdee’s tribute to Lena Horne, A Love Letter to Lena and some great playing from tenor saxophonist Vito Dieterle in an organ quartet format on his recently released Anemone, where his group also covers “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge.” 

The covering of Strayhorn by talented artists never gets tiring because the songs hold up so well. DiMartino’s quartet does the beloved composer especially proud. 

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