Ray Nance: Body and Soul (1969)
Ray Nance recorded Body and Soul, his first album as a leader, in May 1969, almost thirty years after he took over Cootie Williams' trumpet chair in the Duke Ellington orchestra, but only about two years after Billy Strayhorn's death in May 1967, and mere days after Coleman Hawkins' in May 1969. Nance performed "Take the 'A' Train" at Strayhorn's funeral, and "Body and Soul" at Hawk's. Both threnodies are included here as duets with pianist Sir Roland Hanna. Nowhere is Nance's facile virtuosity more beautifully on display, bringing to mind his sublime violin solo on the Ellington band's "Blue Serge" from 1941.
The funeral tributes may be the highlights of the record, but the remainder offers many other delights. In Stanley Dance's engaging original liner notes, Nance reminisces about the schools of violin playing in early jazz, contrasting Eddie South's classicist style with Stuff Smith's wilder swing. An admirer of Smith, Nance nevertheless leaned toward South, as is evident in the delicacy and refinement of his approach on this record. As well as looking back in the history of jazz violin, Body and Soul points forward: the wistful cascading theme of "Jolie Janice" is surely the model for violinist Billy Bang's "The Shift Below," from his Fire From Within (Soul Note, 1984).
Nance himself quotes the bop classic "Wee" (aka "Allen's Alley") midway through "Mimi," signaling his comfort with post-big band era material. Indeed, this comfort sometimes veers toward kitsch. The reading here of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," for example, proves conclusively that a rock 'n' roll beat in a jazz combo does not, by itself, suffice to create fusionor even decent jazz. (Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" fares slightly better.)
Body and Soul features not only Roland Hanna (not yet knighted by the President of Liberia at this time, to the best of my knowledge), but also Jaki Byard. (They don't play on the same cuts.) One of the record's few disappointments is that it squanders the presence of not one but two of the best piano improvisers in post-Ellington jazz. With the exception of Hanna's peerless accompaniment on the funeral duos mentioned above, and some all-too-brief solos by Byard (especially on "She's Funny That Way"), the pianists are kind of lost in the unconventional two-guitarist rhythm section. One of those guitarists is Tiny Grimes (yes, the same Tiny Grimes under whose aegis Charlie Parker made his recording début); the other is Tommy Lucas, and they trade off clean solos that help evoke the classic Django-Grappelli sound.
It is a jazz axiom that Duke's sidemen never achieved, as solo performers, the heights they routinely scaled within the Ellington orchestra. Body and Soul doesn't challenge this conventional wisdom, but its best moments certainly merit inclusion among the finest of the solo efforts of Ellington's collaborators.
Track Listing: Take the "A" Train; Get Happy; Sunny; Body and Soul; Mimi; A Hard Day's Night; Oh Happy Day; Stardust; She's Funny That Way; Jolie Janice; Guitar Amour; Tranquility.
Personnel: Ray Nance: violin, vocal; Tiny Grimes: guitar; Tommy Lucas: guitar; Jaki Byard: piano; Carl Pruitt: bass; Steve Little: drums; Brew Moore: tenor saxophone; Roland Hanna: piano, organ.