Alice Babs and Duke Ellington ‘Serenade to Sweden’ (Reprise) 3/5

This relaxing date on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label from 1966 in Paris is a very welcome re-issue and one of the rarer of Duke Ellington’s many recordings, and as such will be a mandatory purchase for anyone with a love of the Duke. The pairing with Swedish singer Alice Babs is an intriguing one because Babs possessed a three octave voice and was at home in opera as she was in jazz. It should be stated from the outset that this is not the Ellington orchestra, but rather four horn players from the Paris Symphony Orchestra and noteworthy French jazz musicians including bassist Gilbert Rovère and drummer Christian Garros. Overall, the mid-tempo numbers predominate and ideally one would have preferred a greater variety of tempi. That said, the wordless scatting of ‘Babsie’, with horns prominent is a delight and the singers excels on, ‘I’m beginning to see the light’. Her operatic voice comes into it’s own on, ‘Come Sunday’, one of Duke’s most beloved pieces and she infuses this with an appropriate dose of gospel hues. Duke plays a largely secondary role here, but of note are the two numbers on which Billy Strayhorn takes over piano duties, on ‘Something to live for’ and ‘Strange visitor’. For a few minutes of unadulterated fun, ‘La de doody do’ reflects the joyful collaboration between Duke and Babs.

Duke Ellington and Alice Babs clearly had a good deal in common and it should come as little surprise, therefore, that they would repeat the recording experience subsequently on both the second and third sacred concerts that Ellington composed. Those who have viewed and heard the DVD of Babs in those will immediately realise what a talented singer she was. Alice Babs passed away, aged ninety, in 2014.

UK Vibe profile on Alice Babs can be read here

Tim Stenhouse