Compositions by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is a fine duet presentation from vocalist Dorothy Doring and pianist Phil Mattson. The eleven personalized tunes from the Ellington-Strayhorn songbook come to life with Doring’s velvet voice and Mattson’s clever arrangements. Mattson’s arranging credits include: The Manhattan Transfer, The Four Freshman, Chanticleer and The Dale Warland Singers. Mattson is a two-time Grammy nominee that helped establish The School for Music Vocations at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. As an accompanist, Mattson’s resume includes: Mark Murphy, Bobby McFerrin, Sunny Wilkinson, Barbara Morrison, Richie Cole, Ernestine Anderson, Carmen Lundy, and more. “The project started in the summer of 2011 after attending a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop at Fairfield University, CT studying Duke Ellington’s life and music,” Doring says. “I came home so inspired that I decided I wanted to record a CD with compositions by Duke Ellington but also wanted to include a few selections by Billy Strayhorn. I have always admired Phil’s ability as a music director, pianist and arranger so I asked him if he would like to collaborate with me. When he agreed to get on board, we immediately set up a rehearsal schedule to select tunes and work out ideas and arrangements.” Phil commented, “Dorothy has real passion and depth when she sings, but she wisely knows when singing these timeless songs, that it’s not primarily about the voice. It’s about dealing with the text and other nuances that Ellington and Strayhorn mastered. Dorothy is such a seasoned and sophisticated singer that many of the songs required only one take.” Doring has been a professional singer for several decades with a diverse musical background and is equally at home with contemporary pop to classic standards.
Mattson said the Compositions by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn sessions and the final result reminded him of some of his favorite singer/pianist collaborations, such as Tony Bennett’s recordings with Bill Evans. “There’s a dialogue on those albums that really draws out Tony’s best. I think perhaps, that something similar happens with us. It’s a bit like a dance, with both voice and piano alternating sharing the lead. Dorothy reminds me of Sarah Vaughn a little, in the way she would add richness to her sound. I really think this was an ideal showcase for her.” “Day Dream” starts the CD with Mattson playing a whole tone scale phrase on the piano, this scale color is historically a favorite for composer and arrangers to transition a character from reality to a dream state and here it appropriately sets the mood for this clever project as well. Doring’s warm voice enters and the two start the haunting journey through the “rosy” glow. Mattson’s ability to support while filling all the spaces is excellent, leaving just the right amount of space for the music as a whole to breath. Doring’s pitch control is spot on and one can truly hear inflections from Sarah Vaughn. Mattson’s playful solo keeps the whole tone theme for the two A sections with Doring entering for the bridge out. With a retarding ending figure the duet ends the melody and Mattson brings a whole tone line to complete our dreaming for the day.
For a vocalist to be completely exposed in a vocal/piano duet is risky business, a flaw in rhythm or intonation is going to be a glaring moment in the melodic phrase, thankfully this is not a problem with Doring, her command of her instrument is convincing throughout. The well-worn vocal anthem “Lush Life” is testament to Doring’s control. All vocalists sing this selection; few do the composition justice. The rubato intro is sung with control and only a slight amount of cabaret inflection. The A section melody is sung with a clear understanding of the lyrics and their emotional inflection to the notes they are paired with. Mattson keeps the piano part clean and supportive; effortlessly following Doring’s expansions and contractions of each phrase while placing forward moving rhythmic patterns in just the right spots. None of the sections are very long; most state the melody with minimal piano solos, but thats one of the enjoyable elements of this project, it keeps things moving and varied enough to make the sparse duet setting work. “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” boasts the longest track time, coming in at 5:31. Mattson’s solo on this selection if very nice; keeping a stride feel in the left hand, Mattson explores the harmonic flow of this well know Ellington tune with taste and vigor. Doring correctly emotes the nature of the tune, with heartbreak and conviction, this was refreshing that Doring paid tribute the lyric as it truly is a heartbreaking song.
Mattson and Doring truly show they are both veteran performers and take into account each song as a special message and thoughtful addition to the album. The combination of Ellington and Strayhorn tunes as an exploration is genius and truly complimentary when in the hands of two such masters, truly worth adding to your jazz vocal collection.
H. Allen Williams
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