Secret Ellington presents 12 newly unearthed Duke Ellington songs, co-written with librettist Herb Martin for a stillborn 1958 musical called Saturday Laughter. (That there were 22 songs in all suggests a possible second volume in the works.) The material is performed by a remarkable cast of musicians, including vocalists Ian Shaw, Freddy Cole, and Judi Silvano; saxophonists Joe Lovano, Eric Alexander, and Bob Kindred; vibraphonist Joe Locke; bassists George Mraz and Chip Jackson; and drummer Steve Berrios.
Ellington never really orchestrated these songs, so the taking of creative liberties was unavoidable. Guitarist Joe Beck did most of the arrangements; pianists Arturo O'Farrill and James Pearson made significant contributions as well. Together with producer Todd Barkan, they brought forth multifarious textures and combinations, taking maximum advantage of the diverse talent at hand. As far as songwriting goes, nothing tops "I Am Lonely," which is hauntingly arranged by O'Farrill and beautifully sung by Judi Silvano. Joe Beck plays a lush and deep-toned alto guitar on three tracks, meshing beautifully with Lou Marini's alto flute on "Full of Shadows" and "My Home Lies Quiet" and with Lovano's tenor on "Only Yesterday." This last is one of two songs that appear twice -- the other being "You Are Beautiful," sung very fast by Ian Shaw and later as a ballad by Freddy Cole, in a duet with O'Farrill. The appearance of the late Grover Washington, Jr., playing soprano sax on the ballad "They Say," is another highlight. Ellington devotees and scholars will no doubt differ on the merits of these songs and the ways in which they're presented here. But Secret Ellington surely tells listeners much about Duke's ability as a theater composer.