He’s got a killer band with some of my personal favorites like Larry Koonse and Pat Kelley on guitar, Rich Eames and Josh Nelson on the piano (who both also do the arranging), Ricky Woodard on tenor saxophone, Gabe Davis on bass, and Kevin Winard on drums and other percussion. Nolan Shaheed adds his coronet and producer Mark Winkler adds his vocals in duet on the final track. You’ve got to love this line-up and besides…
They’re playing Duke Ellington!
Culver has chosen some of Ellington’s most famous tunes and has thrown in some lesser known (if not unknown) pieces that surprised even this seasoned crew. He goes from the swinging stuff like Duke’s Place and Everything But You—the Ellington and Harry James piece—to I Love You Madly with the great work of Pat Kelley on guitar and Ricky Woodard on tenor sax. And Culver can swing right along with them.
He picks some the best Ellington ballads and delivers them with smooth elegance. I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart is a beauty and Something to Live For—the first collaboration of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn—is just so fine. Sophisticated Lady has terrific interplay between Larry Koonse and Rich Eames and you can hear Culver digging every second of it.
Josh Nelson (piano), Nolan Shaheed (coronet) and Ricky Woodard (tenor sax) catch fire in the blues numbers like I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues and Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me. Josh Nelson turns in some great slide piano on the latter and Shaheed’s coronet is blistering on the former. Once again, Culver gives that throaty delivery and makes those blues even blusier. Mood Indigo has sweet movement between Woodard and Rich Eames.
I’m Just a Lucky So and So is a bit of pop which features tight Koonse picking with a nice walking bass from Gabe Davis. So excellent.
One of the great surprises was Just Squeeze Me. Culver credits co-arranger Rick Hils with turning this sweet Ellington piece into a warmer Latin version. Then Josh Nelson and Ricky Woodard make good on the promise of Hils’ arrangement. Culver is right in there with them to make you sway in your seat.
And then Culver and Company close the album in style and sizzle. It is none other than the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol burner, Caravan. It doesn’t matter who performs this song, it is always a hit. Let Kevin Winard, Eames and Koonse and the others get hold of it and it takes on new life. Plus, Culver is joined on vocals by producer Mark Winkler and this is a winner.
Tom Culver has added a fascinating and important interpretation to the Duke Ellington legacy of work. He has the right artists and arrangers with him to breathe fresh life into the immortal works. And with his unique intonation and dedicated adherence to the master, Culver has scored a hit.
If you’re looking for choirboy vocals, go somewhere else. But if you want soul, you’ve come to the right place.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl