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Various Artists: Secret Ellington

In 1958, Ellington and Strayhorn wrote 22 tunes to lyrics by Herb Martin for a play called Saturday Laughter. A funny thing happened on the way to Broadway. The money dried up and the show never made it. The exact circumstances of the rediscovery of these songs is not clear, but 12 of them now appear-all previously unrecorded-on Secret Ellington, produced by Todd Barkan.

This is a really fine album. Personnel varies from track to track. Singers Ian Shaw, Freddy Cole, Jeffery Smith, Judi Silvano and Karen Oberlin are involved, as are arrangers and instrumentalists James Pearson, Arturo O’Farrill and Joe Beck. Although the performances-all combo affairs-give no inkling of how Ellington might have approached these tunes with his band, they respect the melodies and lyrics and, from time to time, conjure up the Ellington tonal romance and mystique.

“You Are Beautiful” kicks things off at a racehorse tempo, with Shaw handling the vocal with ease and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander burning down the house. (A recitative reading of this tune, by Cole, later on the album is very different and intimate.) The late Grover Washington Jr. (on soprano) appears with Cole on “They Say.” “This Man” introduces tenor saxophonist Bob Kindred with vibist Joe Locke, guitarist Beck, bassist George Mraz and drummer Steve Berrios. Kindred shines throughout the album. His Ben Webster-ian tone and solo style on “Only Yesterday” is perfect, and on the rocking “Big White Mountain” he proves to be a strong blues shouter with a malleable tone. Joe Lovano, on tenor, shows up on a second version of “Only Yesterday” and behind Silvano, his wife, on “I Am Lonely.” Smith, with Beck and alto flutist Lou Marini, suggests Joe Williams on the spiritual tinged “My Home Lies Quiet.”

The secret’s out, and it’s good news for jazz fans.

Originally Published