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Jan Lundgren: Something to Live For

“Reminiscences of a Duke,” the highlight of this tribute to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, is a triumph for Lundgren and the 63-year-old Swedish composer Magnus Linden. Throughout the album, Lundgren plays with his usual clarity of touch and conception. Meeting considerable challenges offered by Linden in the composer’s 15-minute suite, he surpasses himself.

Building on hints at themes abstracted from Ellington tunes, Linden uses strings, woodwinds and French horn for settings that require the pianist’s formidable technical command and stimulate his inventiveness. Linden manages to evoke Ellington’s music, provide ideal settings for Lundgren and demonstrate virtuosity in orchestration. Some of his writing is reminiscent of Charles Ives (in the movement titled “Mood”) and Eddie Sauter (“Pace”), but it has a pungent modernity all its own. His work is all the more impressive because Linden accomplishes impressive depth and texture using only 12 pieces, demonstrating a masterful command of resources.

Lundgren plays the fastest and most demanding passages (“Speed”) without sacrificing a bit of the emotion that the music demands. Yet, he performs with the precision of a classical pianist playing a concerto, which this music resembles in some respects.

Linden is not the only hero of this album who may be unfamiliar to most listeners. The other is Bo Sylven, 31 years old, a contemporary of Lundgren and a writer of great skill. He provides stimulating arrangements of “Something to Live For,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Blood Count” and other Ellington and Strayhorn pieces. Lundgren’s trio with bassist Mattias Hjort and drummer Rasmus Kihlberg plays “Azure” and “Raincheck” without the orchestra. Lundgren is alone in a reflective performance of Ellington’s barely known 1966 composition “Looking Glass.”

Tracking Lundgren’s growth from one recording to the next over the past five years or so has been one of the rewarding listening experiences of the 1990s. If this album is an indication, his increasing individuality and expressiveness as a soloist will lead to important work in the new century.

Originally Published