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Ellington’s Big Secret

In 1958 Duke Ellington was busy, as usual, carting his famous band to and from gigs all over the U.S.A., but somehow he still found time to sit down with lyricist Herb Martin and write 22 new songs for a musical called Saturday Laughter. Unfortunately the musical, a then-topical production about apartheid in South Africa, never got to Broadway–or anywhere else for that matter. But twelve of the songs written for the still-born production appear on the new Secret Ellington (True Life), set for a Mar. 19 release.

To record the lost songs, producer Todd Barkan brought together a crack group of players including instrumentalists Joe Lovano, Eric Alexander, Joe Beck, George Mraz, James Pearson, Joe Locke, Arturo O’Farrill and Grover Washington Jr. (the Secret Ellington sessions would be Washington’s last before he died in 1999) and singers Freddy Cole, Jeffrey Smith, Judi Silvano, Karen Oberlin and Ian Shaw. But because Ellington never performed Saturday Laughter‘s songs with his orchestra, the compositions existed only on lo-fi demo tapes and sketchy lead sheets. So Barkan had Beck, Shaw, Pearson and O’Farrill write the arrangements. Longtime Ellington buddy Billy Strayhorn deserves some credit too; he helped out back in ’58 by turning many of the Duke’s sketches for Saturday Laughter into actual tunes.

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