Like a lot of musicians, Cleo Laine is a great Duke Ellington fan. And Ellington, as it turned out, was something of a Cleo Laine fan. "Often, Duke said that he would like me to sing with the band," she recalls. "Unfortunately, when he did ask me seriously to sing with the band, I was involved in other things. So it never came about."
At least not while Duke Ellington was alive. But after Laine and her husband, saxophonist John Dankworth, wound up sharing the bill at a few shows with Mercer Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, they thought it might be interesting to do an album of Ellington songs with the Ellington band.
"We'd had a very long relationship with the Ellington family," says Laine, "so we'd been very close, and close to Mercer as well."
A funny thing happened as Dankworth was researching material for the album. "He went through all the Ellington tapes that RCA had, and they had quite a vast library of his music," she says. "One of them was Duke Ellington just playing solo piano, that he recorded in 1941. As we went through the tape, he started to play 'Solitude.' Well, I sing 'Solitude,' but he wasn't playing it in my key.
"So just off the top of his head, John said, 'Oh, it's a shame he's not playing it in your key; we could have done something there.' And [Ellington] then modulated to my key." She laughs. "It's as if he was looking down, saying, 'You're going to sing with my band whether you like it or not!' "
Was it hard to build a new performance around a 54-year old nTC recording? "Well, it must've been technically tricky for John and the men that fiddle about with those knobs," Laine says with a chuckle. But things were surprisingly easy from her end.
"He not only modulated to my key, but he was also improvising on the second chorus," she says. "So, if I sang the [melody], he was actually accompanying me. Then it was obvious to creep in the big band, which John also did, and finish with that. And Duke played all the way through, right until the very end."
No wonder, then, that they named the album after that particular tune. It's a stunning performance, and not just because of the recording wizardry involved. For once, Laine really gets to show her stuff as a jazz singer -- a side of her that sometimes got lost amid the pop-oriented material on her albums.
"Well, I've never really left my roots," she says. "Although a lot of the albums I've done were of the popular kind, in concert I never went that way completely. It was always a mixture of the popular and quite a large amount of jazz. The musicians that I worked with were all jazz musicians, apart from the odd diversion, like working with James Galway or the guitarist John Williams.
"I don't know why people do or don't think of you as a jazz singer. I mean, I don't think it matters much." She laughs. "They either listen to you and like your voice, or they don't."
Speaking of likes, does she have a favorite Ellington song? "I haven't sung quite a lot of them," she admits. "But I like singing ballads, so I'll probably veer to that. I do love 'Sophisticated Lady' and 'Creole Love Call.' And there's one on [the album] that never had words before, and Leonard Feather's daughter wrote lyrics to it. It's now called 'September Rain.' And it used to be called 'Chelsea Bridge.' That one, I've got a feeling, will become a favorite of mine."
To hear excerpts from Cleo Laine's "Solitude," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6249 after you hear the greeting.
Who: Duke Ellington Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington with Cleo Laine, Joe Williams and John Dankworth
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
Where: Pier Six
Tickets: $25, $22.50 reserved, $12 lawn
Call: (410) 481-7328