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Sunday, November 1, 2020

WHO trio - Strell: The Music of Billy Strayhorn & Duke Ellington (Clean Feed, 2020) ****

By Stuart Broomer

The Swiss-American WHO trio of pianist Michel Wintsch, drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Bänz Oester has been playing together since 1998, developing a close musical rapport and a loose, creative identity, a group that looks like a traditional piano trio but that has a lightness that comes from close listening, something that also permits the group’s imaginative flights and rhythmic ease in difficult terrain. While their approach here to the compositions of Ellington and Strayhorn significantly loosens the rhythmic and harmonic structures of the material, leaving it free to drift into new shapes and patterns, WHO possesses some essential qualities with which to address this work, a certain wit and also an innate elegance, a certain grace that’s part of the respect that much of the material--too subtle to demand—requires (some of the older material seems to need a certain rough touch).

From the outset, there’s a certain deconstructive impulse at work here, spaces open up, a regular rhythm falls away, a tune comes undone, but there’s a certain spell cast, as if it’s housed in Duke’s place. The opening “The Mooche” comes with a singular surprise. It sounds like an early Ellington trombonist—ideally Tricky Sam Nanton—has joined in, but it’s actually Hemingway, who has now spent enough time in bands with Ray Anderson to be able to sing in a way mistakeable for a trombone. The version of “Black and Tan Fantasy” is similarly transformative, with Oester playing gut-bucket bass. Wintsch is brilliant on a version of “Take the A Train,” sometimes reaching high velocity with a light touch that has the piece flying in multiple directions. “In a Mellow Tone” achieves the same quality at a slower tempo with assertive differences enriching the harmonic and rhythmic patterns.

“Passion Flower” is launched with a drive reminiscent of Ellington’ s version with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, but it again finds its own direction with the three trio members weaving their own polyrhythmic patterns to a new complexity. The melody and rhythm of “Angelica” seems to dance back and forth among the three instruments, the rhythmic complexity retained by Oester and Hemingway when Wintsch launches a solo flight. The concluding “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” has a slightly tenuous Hemingway vocal that summons up something of the music’s original era.