Tom Culver: Tom Culver at Duke’s Place-The Songs of Duke Ellington

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Tom Culver

Tom Culver at Duke’s Place-The Songs of Duke Ellington

(Café Pacific Records)

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

New to me though this is his fifth recording, Tom Culver has a deep appreciation and feel for Duke Ellington’s music. His iconoclastic voice is a bit thin, which unexpectedly adds character instead of seeming less than. Higher notes sometimes fuzz slightly as if airbrushed; consonants are subtle (not poorly enunciated). His sound is one of intimacy, sophistication, authenticity, and ease; his musicianship is swellegant.

“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (Ellington/John Redmon/Henry Nemo) rises light n’ smooooth with casual bounce and the clarity of Pat Kelley’s swing guitar and then saunters.
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“I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues” (Elington/Ray Brown/Bob Russell) sashays in all hips and muted horn. Culver’s voice is seasoned; we hear the years. Whether provoked by holes in his shoes and/or not enough booze, the lyric is resigned, vocally shrugged.

“Everything but You” (Ellington/Harry James/Don George) sounds personal, as if the singer stands is standing a few feet away. Wuff! There’s Ricky Woodard’s terrific sax. The number swings like a pendulum, ending with a single deft line of scat. “Just Squeeze Me” (Ellington/Lee Gaines) is an after-hours bossa nova. The sax is mellow. Josh Nelson’s piano is stylish. “Hold me tight,” literally breaks with feeling. “Please” is palpable. Notes have tails that fade. We believe every word.

Rich Eames’ hip piano slides into “Mood Indigo” (Ellington/Barney Bigard/Mitchell). A-one-and-a-two-and-a; then the band responds. Culver sounds sandy adding texture. Blues seem to physically dip; sax comments like a wing man. The word “soul” lingers. “Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington/Mitchell Parish) smokes. Eames’ piano is dreamy. The verse unfolds in slow-mo like satin ribbon.
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Billy Strayhorn’s iconic  “Something to Live For” is so caught up it begins tenuously. A shaded sax and subdued percussion (Kevin Winard) take us to a country club dance. Culver evocatively sighs the song. “To the one—(he goes high–who wil)l—surely—be-ee—mine,” he sings. A splendid sax follows.

“Love You Madly”—“right or wrong/sounds like the lyric of a song”—arrives on Larry Koonse’s gently stroked guitar, then twirls with a grin. “So just re-laaax,” the vocalist intones. This is a hat-slipped-down-over-the-eyes rendition. Like “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” (Ellington/Mack David), it has roguish charm.

We end with the “Caravan” (Ellington/Juan Tizol). I dare you to sit still through its infectious, percussive rhythm. The song is up-tempo but not swept away. Culver elongates only where it’s  effective. Mark Winkler adds his able voice. Eames’ classy, fleet-fingered piano leads; sax zig-zags. It’s a great arrangement.

This is an appealing, low key CD performed with respect and finesse.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.