Latest review of Heaven and Earth!

May 3, 2021

NATS Journal of Singing – March, 2021 – Gregory Berg

Heaven and Earth: A Duke Ellington Songbook. Danielle Talamantes, soprano; Henry Dehlinger, piano. (MSR Jazz MS 1617; 50:57)

There was a time when any mention of a composer such as Duke Ellington in the pages of the Journal of Singingwould have been a shocking departure from the norm. Needless to say, both NATS and the JOS have dramatically broadened their scope of interest in recent years, and we are all better for it. Thank goodness that we live in an era in which the inclusion of a Duke Ellington album in this column strikes us as entirely appropriate and downright ordinary.

Fortunately, however, there is nothing ordinary about this recording or the performances contained therein. It is an exhilarating feast of superb songs by one of America’s most important and influential musical geniuses, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899–1974.) Scott Parrish, in his excellent liner notes, calls Ellington “a colossus among American composers of any genre,” who created more than one thousand compositions during his long and distinguished career.” Parish goes on to explain how many of Ellington’s vocal songs initially would be conceived as instrumental singles with lyrics added well after the fact to bring, in Parish’s words, “another sparkling and sometimes startling dimension to the captivating saga. Whether an instrumental or vocal arrangement, these pieces carry away the listener with Ellington’s uniquely transcendent, supremely evocative and unequalled style.”

We are treated to a dozen Duke Ellington songs that are much more than a predictable compendium of greatest hits. They span every period of his long career and represent a number of facets of his artistry. Several of the songs are familiar favorites, but most of the rest are drawn from the vast well of great Ellington songs that have fallen into some measure of obscurity. It is a sensible balance that will leave the typical listener sated, yet hungry for more.

Two of the singers mentioned in the liner notes are the legendary Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald, and it is voices of that ilk that readily come to mind when one thinks of the jazz greats like Duke Ellington. It may then come as a bit of a shock when one begins playing this disk and hears the kind of voice to which these songs have been entrusted. Danielle Talamantes has the kind of crystalline soprano sound that one might associate with Mozart’s Susanna or even Richard Strauss’s Sophie. Her operatic résumé actually boasts somewhat bigger roles like Donna Anna, but in this context we seem to be hearing her in more delicate terms. Her sound is clear as a bell, flows with liquid ease and evenness, and is unfailingly lovely in every register. What a pleasure to hear these songs sung by such a technically sound singer who is also an exceptionally expressive and imaginative musician. With her every step of the way is Henry Dehlinger, who can count himself as both an accomplished pianist and singer. Certainly, his playing has a lovely singing quality to it, and he also melds seamlessly with the soprano at every turn. No singer could ask for a more able collaborator.

Beyond his flawless playing, Dehlinger reveals himself to be an exceptionally skilled arranger in several of the songs collected here. This is especially true with “Come Sunday,” the song that opens the disk. Dehlinger’s arrangement begins with an exquisite introduction reminiscent of Claude Debussy’s impressionist masterwork, “Re et dans l’eau.” Ellington and Debussy might seem like strange bedfellows, but it works brilliantly. Just as impressive is how Dehlinger weaves together those fragile pastel shades with the bold brassiness of stride piano. In lesser hands, the result would be musical chaos; Dehlinger makes it work perfectly. Other arrangers contributing to this collection’s excellence include Caren Levine and Larry Ham. Drawing the disk to a brilliant close is Ellington’s original arrangement of his thundering “Almighty God has those Angels” from his Second Sacred Concert. This is one of several tracks devoted to Ellington’s sacred music, a facet of his oeuvre that merits much more attention.

There are no texts included in the booklet, but the perfect clarity of Talamantes’s diction render them unnecessary. Fortunately, the liner notes include revelatory background information on each song, including the one piano solo on this disk, the sublime “Meditation.” It is just one more reason to enjoy this magnificent collection.