Duke Ellington - Piano in the BackgroundDuke Ellington - Piano in the Foreground

Duke Ellington

Piano in the Background / Piano in the Foreground


First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2004, Volume 11, #11

Written by John Metzger


As talented a pianist as Duke Ellington was, his incredible skill as a composer, arranger, and bandleader frequently overshadowed his instrumental prowess. Indeed, there were moments when he didn’t even perform on his own recordings, and in essence, his 1960 release Piano in the Background and its companion from the following year Piano in the Foreground were designed to correct this strange injustice he had imposed upon himself. The former featured Ellington fronting his orchestra, essentially grafting a series of introductions and conclusions to reinterpretations of his formidable chestnuts, with the occasional piano interlude leaping from the center of the compositions. The process obviously was formulaic, and yet none of the songs ever slipped into rote regurgitation, partially because of the lively urgency that the ensemble brought to the brassy, big band arrangements and partially because of Ellington’s playfully spry accompaniments. Even the oft-recorded Perdido felt fresh and inspired, though it’s the revamped rendition of Take the A-Train that truly soared.

Piano in the Foreground further built upon this concept by stripping away the orchestra that routinely fattened many of the tracks on Piano in the Background. Featuring a trio of piano, bass, and drums, it brilliantly illuminated Ellington’s elegant, virtuosic touch as well as the ease with which he was able to deliver his statements of utter beauty. Laid-back and relaxed, it remains a simple matter to get lost within the set’s many romantic interludes, especially given the understated approach taken by drummer Sam Woodyard and bass player Aaron Bell, but Ellington’s piano playing was delightfully intriguing, nonetheless. The outing’s finest moment, however, was a reformulation of George Gershwin’s Summertime, which transformed the standard into an avant-garde masterpiece that was light-years ahead of its time.

Both Piano in the Background and Piano in the Foreground are impeccably remastered, and between them, the collections boast 12 bonus tracks. Of particular note are the former album’s twin re-imaginings of Lullaby of Birdland, and Ellington’s previously unissued Harlem Air Shaft (with its wispy allusions to In the Mood, the Joe Garland/Andy Razaf-penned tune that was popularized by Glenn Miller) and the latter’s astounding quartet of untitled piano improvisations. In truth, all of the extras are nothing short of spectacular, making them worthy of attention from anyone even remotely interested in the multi-faceted world of Ellingtonia.


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Piano in the Background is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!

Piano in the Foreground is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2004 The Music Box