Ray Nance is best known for his long association with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, where he played trumpet and occasional violin from 1940 until 1963. Nance didn’t release many recordings as a leader, so this 1969 date, originally released on the Solid State label, is a most welcome reissue.
Nance focuses solely on violin for this session, and he tackles everything from the Ellington-Strayhorn signature tune “Take the ‘A’ Train” to “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles as well as the gospel hit “Oh Happy Day” (featuring Nance on vocal) and standards like “Stardust” and “Body and Soul.” The violinist is backed throughout by a strong supporting cast: Jaki Byard and Roland Hanna alternate on piano; Tiny Grimes and Tommy Lucas share guitar duties; Brew Moore adds tenor sax on several cuts; and bassist Carl Pruitt and drummer Steve Little anchor the rhythm section.
But the Beatles cut as well as “Sunny” (a version of Bobby’s Hebb’s hit at the time) and Nance’s attempt at gospel singing never quite jell, suffering in comparison with the wonderful versions of Ellington’s little-known composition “Guitar Amour” and the swinging groove the violinist finds on “Get Happy.” Nance’s elegiac reading of “‘A’ Train” is undoubtedly the highlight here. It’s worth the price of admission alone.