5. The Pianist (Fantasy, 1974)
The first posthumous Ellington release is drawn from two piano-trio sessions from 1966 and 1970, respectively. A somewhat obscure record, it’s also an exceptional one. The songs are all Ellington originals, mostly new material and each one deeply worthy. The highlight is “Looking Glass,” a delicate ballad from the 1966 session that’s ripe for rediscovery. That session, featuring bassist John Lamb and drummer Sam Woodyard, also offers the thrilling “The Shepherd” (from Second Sacred Concert), a hard-bop number that echoes “Moanin’,” and a number of blues pieces delivered with Ellington’s clanging, percussive style. The 1970 session—okay, I cheated in calling it a trio date. It features the dual basses of Victor Gaskin and Paul Kondziela, proof positive that Ellington was experimenting well into his seventies, along with drummer Rufus Jones. Experimental or not, though, Duke still sounds like Duke on the piano, banging out a playful pair (“Duck Amok” and “Fat Mess”) along with another affectionate tribute to Strayhorn, “Never Stop Remembering Bill.” To the end of his life, Ellington remained startlingly contemporary, and one of the best pianists in the business. For both of those reasons, The Pianist is a gem.