Pianist John Di Martino and his quartet swing through the work of Billy Strayhorn


Pianist John Di Martino is a veteran player with more than four decades of experience. On “Passion Flower,” his latest recording, he explores the work of Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn, who died in 1967, was considered an indispensable member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and one of the great composers of the 20th century. The songs that he wrote alone, and the ones that he created with Ellington have become jazz standards.

“Passion Flower” is scheduled for release April 10, 2020. Songs that should not be missed on the recording are “Johnny Come Lately” and “Lush Life.”

John Di Martino in brief

Di Martino is a Philadelphia native. He studied jazz with Lennie Tristano and Don Sebesky, and made his first recording in 1990. He has built a substantial career offering musical support to other artists, among them David “Fathead” Newman and Bobby Sanabria. During his lengthy career, Di Martino has been a leader on 15 previous recordings.

According to NEA Jazz Master, Sheila Jordan, “John’s soul and being come straight through to his music; the jazz world needs him!”

The music on “Passion Flower” proves that Di Martino has a special touch when it comes to jazz. The songs vibrate in authentic ways that make each song seem new, even if listeners have heard them before. It is the kind of recording that make audiences wonder what Di Martino will do next.

“Johnny Come Lately” by John DiMartino

There is no denying the swaggering, swaying feel of this tune. The deep bass rumblings that kick off the track give way to drums, piano and saxophone. The saxophone motif continues the song’s swagger, and new song sections are led into by the piano.

It is during the piano’s showcase that the bass and that wonderful riff it played at the beginning return, with some variation. The entire song seems to move, and from the outset, audiences can imagine snapping fingers and swinging bodies, if they for some reason are not physically engaged with the sound.

The piano and saxophone are often paired to great effect. Sometimes, it seems as though the piano is only accenting, but those sharp notes ultimately become a springboard to the showcase that is to come. The drum solos are an effective break in the dynamics. The change of pace, coupled with riffs previously played, but at times varied, makes this song one that will keep listeners on their toes, metaphorically, but probably on their feet literally.

“Lush Life” by John Di Martino

Here the pianist and his quartet are joined by vocalist Raul Midon. The singer’s portrayal of the song allows listeners to hear every word and to feel each nuance and connotation. In essence, it is a deep and pensive tune that is sometimes only accompanied by sparse notes. It is the song of an existential crisis, which leads some critics to marvel that Strayhorn wrote the song when he was only 15. A fallen romance tempts an analytical narrative to choose a “lush life” in a dive bar so that he doesn’t have to bother with romance or much else aside from drinking.

The soundscape is down-to-earth and never overwhelms the singer. The sentiments of the lyrics are played up in the musical accompaniment. The approach is gentle, and not overbearing in its story of one person’s negative resolve.

“Passion Flower” contains 14 of Strayhorn’s best-loved compositions. The style of the music makes audiences recall the work of the original artist, while showcasing the musical artistry of Di Martino. For more information, visit: http://www.johndimartino.com and http://www.sunnysidezone.com

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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