Duke Ellington

What to say about this dignified figure and his royal reign as big band leader, composer, pianist, and entertainer? He’s one of the most important and most loved composers of the twentieth century. Duke’s intricacies and scope were up there with whomever you might want to name, and he knew how to make a small band snap, too. He played piano, but the band itself was his main instrument. In his writing, he often had certain sidemen in mind; rather than write “trumpet” on the score, he’d put the specific cat’s name down. The other thing about his writing is that he didn’t do it alone. Billy Strayhorn became his main partner and was responsible for several classics in the songbook.

Relative to the vast number of Ellington titles in and out of print, this will probably remain the most meager page of the website. Not being much of a fan of either straight swing music or jazz vocals, a lot of stuff will remain absent. But here are some favorites.

Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete)
July 1956 / Columbia

The first LP issue of this historic July 7 concert was actually a re-recording of much of the music, thanks to off-mike playing from some of the band during the event itself, which necessitated a visit to the studio to recreate parts of the gig. Decades later, a separate recording of the real-time event was prized from Voice of America (the long lost “other microphone”), and with some careful syncing, we’ve now got this complete faux stereo version. Pan to one channel to hear Columbia’s mono reel and pan to the other side for VOA’s. Leave ‘em balanced, and virtually everything that happened on the Newport stage is captured in wide stereo. Kudos to reissue producer Phil Schaap for the restoration and for keeping the original LP’s studio recreations, which another producer might have discarded with a “well, we don’t need these anymore.” Schaap also writes a fine booklet essay that details the technical concerns of the release and tells the story of the night in question.

So this is a lot of audio on two discs. The gig is presented as it occurred, including all the announcements, stage banter, everything. The live show runs from Disc 1 to part of Disc 2, and the remainder of Disc 2 contains the “bonus” program of studio re-takes. It’s a lot to listen to, but since this is one of those legendary jazz nights - heck, it might be the most infamous jazz concert of all time - the whole experience is worth at least one headphone listen, if only because this is a piece of history here. Thereafter, one might fast forward through the periphery for the straight music.

What made the show so infamous was Paul Gonsalves’ marathon tenor solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, 27 choruses that brought the band and crowd to a fever pitch. My response to this solo is that you had to be there. The only remarkable thing about it is how long it lasts, as it doesn’t exactly probe the musical borders of the 12-bar form. However, taking into account the infectious groove and the atmosphere that had descended upon the proceedings by this time of night, I can understand why those in attendance were swept away.

The show had actually gotten off to a worrisome start as a few members of Duke’s orchestra went AWOL. A downsized platoon took the stage for a couple of tunes before retreating backstage to wait for the delinquents. Once the full band was assembled, they were able to premier the new “Festival Suite”, a tripartite work of large scope that features various players. I’m partial to the enticing middle movement “Blues To Be There” but all three parts are quite good and form the real centerpiece of the concert.

My favorite track is “Jeep’s Blues”, a feature for altoist Johnny Hodges. I love the ambiguous piano chording that Duke drops behind Hodges. The moderate tempo of “Jeep’s Blues” was part of an effort to calm the bonkers crowd after the Gonsalves episode, and there’s a humorous moment where festival organizer George Wein takes to the mike and tries to bring the show to a close. Duke asks to say goodnight, and Wein says okay, but no more music. Duke then unleashes Sam Woodyard on the drum frenzy “Skin Deep”, and I wonder how long it took Wein’s jaw to hit the floor (or his face to redden) once that started.

This is a powerful performance overall, notwithstanding the dysfunctional start to the evening. The two vocal pieces are disposable, but even they have some period charm and fatten the kitchen-sink nature of the show. Columbia has excellently restored something here that I imagine makes the top ten list of most Ellington connoisseurs.

Such Sweet Thunder
Aug 1956-May 1957 / Columbia

So is Duke the Shakespeare of jazz? The prolific master creator against whom all future comers are measured? If Miles is called the Picasso of jazz, then perhaps the Duke/Bard comparison isn’t too out of order. It comes to mind because this album presents a series of short tributes to Shakespearean characters, co-composed by Ellington and Strayhorn and rendered by the formidable Ellington orchestra of the time. There’s Hodges, Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Quentin Jackson, Jimmy Woode, et al, portraying instrumental impressions of Othello, Lady Macbeth, Puck, Cleopatra, Henry V, and so on. Well, “portraying” inasmuch as it’s even possible (I do sometimes complain about representational music), and trying to connect 20th century swing with 16th century theater is an arbitrary endeavor for sure. Let’s just say that Will’s plays inspired some personable moments here.

A standout classic from the suite is Strayhorn’s “Star-Crossed Lovers”, a romantic paean topped with clarion alto from Mr. Johnny Hodges. Billy had originally named it “Pretty Girl” before Duke decided it would be the Romeo and Juliet piece, and it is given a lovely performance. More sparse and somber are “Sonnet for Caesar” (featuring Jimmy Hamilton’s lonely clarinet) and “Sonnet in Search of a Moor”, where Duke and bassist Jimmy Woode take pensive solos. “Sonnet for Sister Kate” has a hymn-like stillness in the horn arrangement, although the ya-ya trombone ruins the mood.

“Lady Mac” goes through a number of changes, and in “Up and Down, Up and Down”, instruments frolick in pairs. Apparently, this 1999 reissue uses an alternate take of the piece, not the original on which Clark Terry voices “Lord what fools these mortals be” on his trumpet. Not something I’m going to miss. And as for trumpet, Cat Anderson gets to do his famous caterwauling at the end of “Madness in Great Ones”. I’m the last person to be impressed by ultra high frequency trumpet, so I instead zero in on the hip riff that the other trumpets deploy behind Anderson’s squeals.

A processional rhythm percolates throughout “Half the Fun”, colored by reeds on one side (which lock into a nifty zigzag pattern at one point) and impressionistic brass chords on the other. Hodges is the primary soloist on this number, and Duke comes aboard later with a piano solo. Along with “Star Crossed Lovers”, this track is a major highlight. The album ends with the uptempo “Circle of Fourths”, exactly what it says, laced with an energetic riff (part arpeggio, part chromatic) and a boppish tenor solo.

The generous program of extra tracks includes alternates of some Thunder pieces, along with a handful of unrelated tunes recorded during the same sessions. “Suburban Beauty”, “A Flat Minor”, and “Cafe Au Lait” may be sideline items, but I have to say that they are as catchy as anything I’ve heard from Duke. Overall, this is a good disc with lots of quality music from Ellington and his men.

Blues in Orbit
Feb 1958 & Dec 1959 / Columbia

Love love love this one. Running down a bunch of blues (or blues-flavored) pieces sounds like a boring premise, but the album is so full of variety, ingenuity, and individuality as to be one of the Ellington orchestra’s best. All the colors of the band and the compositional range of Duke and Strayhorn ensure that the blues trip never gets monotonous or predictable. There are lots of clever details: the cushy horn fadeout in “Three J’s Blues”, the exciting background riffs in “Swinger’s Jump”, Mitchell Wood’s plunger trombone in “Sweet and Pungent”, or the luxuriant chords of the title piece. The watertight band is steered by drummer Jimmy Johnson (Sam Woodyard appears on a couple of tracks) and the strong bassist Jimmy Woode. Even though these are all relatively short tracks, they keep developing new ideas and have many surprises - how a tune starts out is not necessarily how it’s going to end.

All the tracks are highlights in their own way. Strayhorn’s “Smada” is a sporty setting for Johnny Hodges’ alto, while Ray Nance gets a devilish violin spot in “C Jam Blues”. “Blues in Blueprint” draws the listener along softly on a cliched bassline and not so cliched textures. “Blues in Orbit” sways lightly under a milky way of horn harmonies, slightly dissonant yet comforting at the same time. “Villes Ville” ends the original program with cool, urban riffery. I love the main theme (two notes - pause - then three downward answering notes) and the fadeout groove.

The bonus program features some alternate takes and also dips into other material recorded at the same time, like “Sentimental Lady” (Hodges again, heavenly) and “Brown Penny”. “Track 360” attempts a jazz simulation of a locomotive leaving the station - puffs, clacks, whistles - yet with the appearance of an ambiguous, polytonal chord and some staccato trumpet figures, the piece takes on a classical air as well. Overall, this is a top of the line record, fully indicative of how good the ‘50s Ellington orchestra could sound, and it’s worth hearing again and again.

Anatomy of a Murder
May-June 1959 / Columbia

Duke’s music for the Otto Preminger film follows the standard soundtrack procedure of establishing a few strong themes and then re-presenting them in different guises. Some of these tunes share melodic information but twist it in different ways, thus giving the suite a subliminal consistency. It’s interesting to hear Ellington doing this because he is such a masterful composer and arranger to begin with, and scoring a film gives him the opportunity to be a little more cinematic than usual. I wouldn’t say that the music rivals his better-known pieces, but it is snazzy in its own right, and his orchestra of the time (including Hodges, Nance, Carney, Procope, etc.) is deployed in intriguing formations. There’s even a celesta for extra color.

Almost all of the tunes are self-sufficient - the “Anatomy of a Murder” theme could be a rousing Duke instrumental like any other non-soundtrack piece, and only the sneaky bass clarinet portion of “Way Early Subtone” sounds empty without visuals. I think “Hero to Zero” is the best track, with its gorgeous piano and a Ray Nance violin solo, a similarly tender mood emerges in “Almost Cried”. The 1999 reissue adds incidental movie stings, alternate renditions, extra tunes (“Beer Garden”), and a promotional radio interview with the Maestro himself. A sideline record for sure, but one worth sinking into, particularly with the annotated reissue.

Piano in the Foreground
March 1961 & March 1957 / Columbia

There is this thing called “composer’s piano”, a designation I’ve always taken to mean possessive attention to form and dynamics, along with occasional (and even radical) playing disruptions in the interest of finding a new twist on a song. In solo or trio performance, Duke will recite a classic composition with impromptu embellishments, or he’ll reformulate one from the ground up, but then there are times when he drops the composerly mindset and becomes a flexible, no-pomp pianist. All of these methods can be heard on Piano in the Foreground (and other Duke trio records too, like Money Jungle and Live at the Whitney). Duke is backed on the main 1961 session by bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard, who offer clean, unobtrusive support.

In the realm of straightforward songs are “Body and Soul”, “A Hundred Dreams Ago,” and the loverly “Fontainebleau Forest”. A looser, interactive style can be heard on “Blues For Jerry”, where Bell’s bass is right on Duke’s tail. In contrast are the “out” tracks, a case in point being the modernist deconstruction of “Summertime”. Drums and bass fidget irregularly as Duke hammers dissonant clusters, and it ends with a piano and bass detonation, definitely not a lullaby anymore. “Springtime in Africa” centers around the heady atmosphere of Duke’s chords. And then there’s the funky “Cong-go”, built on Bell’s bass syncopation and Duke’s bluesy licks. The groove is ages ahead of its time; I can imagine Medeski, Martin, and Wood playing it. So, when you mix these adventurous tracks with classy songs like “I Can’t Get Started”, you get a full-range portrait of Ellington the pianist.

The bonus program features an elegant “Lotus Blossom” from the same session and then jumps back to some 1957 tapes with Jimmy Woode in the bass chair. “All the Things You Are”, heard in two takes, is rather lethargic, but the ensuing series of “Piano Improvisations” picks up the energy. Three shorter installments of this series play around with blues and raggy stride while the nine-minute “No. 1” develops a small vamp into a bombastic swagger, egged on by Woodyard. Fun to hear Duke so relaxed.

Money Jungle
Sept. 1962 / Blue Note

This trio matchup with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach is unexpectedly OUT. For one thing, the three men don’t quite share a sense of pulse or phrasing. Ellington’s piano is the center force, Mingus plays the deconstructive force, and Max locks into his own accents and thus creates a third reference point. This tension exists in almost every track. How can Mingus race so far ahead of the beat? How can Duke jump into those syncopated chords with no solid foundation beneath him? And does Max even hear the others?

These aren’t complaints, just a warning of some imbalances. The title track, for example, is a raucous rendition of a simple tune, and while an avant-garde trio might have intentionally aimed at this turbulence, Duke and Chuck and Max get there via an inability to mesh. Not even on the blues pieces is there a collective agreement on pulse, although this makes them more intriguing than they would be if played straight, and “Caravan” rattles like a shockless jalopy on a rutted gravel road, the beginning of which sounds like the trio is playing three different tunes at once. It sure is fun, but the last thing anyone should expect is for Duke and the two younger lions to swing comfortably. There’s a ringer or stinger in every song, usually traceable to Mingus’ bullying mischief. On the other hand, ballads like “Solitude”, “Warm Valley” (dating from the Blanton-Webster years), and especially “Fleurette Africaine” achieve a profound beauty. Roach gets a nice solo feature in “A Little Max” ; the master take is for sticks, the alternate has brushes.

Other notes: “Wig Wise” sounds a heck of a lot like Herbie Nichols, who at times sounded like Duke, so there you go. Duke’s “REM Blues” solo includes a melodic lick that he would use to introduce “The Feeling of Jazz” on the upcoming collaboration with John Coltrane. And Duke’s banged-out chords in “Caravan” are so Brubeckian that this track could be a blindfold test’s curve ball. Dave gets pilloried for his pompous solos while Duke does exactly the same thing and gets off scott free. So there are some extremes from the leader on this unusual trio recording, and much of the time he sounds like he’s trying to fight through obstacles. The remastering of the 2002 reissue sounds good, although it’s not a pristine recording to begin with.

Far East Suite
Dec. 1966 / Bluebird

Just shy of a masterpiece, here’s a powerful, colorful, modern sounding record from a later Ellington orchestra (still with familiar names) that reflects worldly influence in exotic scales and chord textures, at the same time swinging on visceral grooves from bassist John Lamb and drummer Rufus Jones. It has appeared on CD three times to my knowledge, and the latest version - Bluebird’s “First Edition” of 2003 - sounds fantastic and comes with several alternate takes. Here’s the master program, track by track:

“Tourist Point of View”: Perfect title, as the rhythm suggests overland movement and the harmonies add a foreign foreboding. Paul Gonsalves’ cool tenor reassures us as new sights breeze by the window.

“Bluebird of Delhi”: Birdsong for clarinet, with odd band interjections.

“Isfahan”: Gorgeous Strayhorn composition, a delicate podium for Johnny Hodges to work his alto magic.

“Depk”: The theme is almost too childish to be worthy of Duke, but it is saved by a polyrhythmic episode in the middle.

“Mount Harissa”: Begun by a Spanish rhythm and minor-key piano theme, mounting horn textures and unwinding tenor solo suggest the climbing and descent of a mountain. Crescendo and Diminuendo in Red.

“Blue Pepper”: This is where I dock the masterpiece designation, as the dignified Ellington crew suddenly sounds like a high school band rocking out at halftime. It’s a tight band, mind you, and they’ve got a trumpeter who likes to show off, but they somehow abduct a suite in progress and hold it hostage for three minutes.

“Agra”: With baritone sax meditations woven into subtle background fabrics, this diversionary piece gets us back on track.

“Amad”: Forceful piano stabs and a dark, winding line from the reeds, buffered by solid brass tones. Trombone steps out with exotic inflections. Great snappy drumming from Jones later on. The music has an air of expectancy and ends with a lonely trombone call.

“Ad Lib on Nippon”: Eleven and a half glorious minutes. At the beginning, the piano sketches low intervals and a descending chord cadence, then comes a full-band blues with dark hues and evolving horn alignments. Just past the five-minute mark, the piano downshifts into a romantic melody over a softly rolling chords, so beautiful. Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet then introduces the climactic homestretch that peaks with a majestic chord progression, clarinet skittering above. Forget Nippon; this could be NYC, framed in 16:9 and shot at night. “Ad Lib” might refer to the way the piece was composed, but the performance is sure of its journey from intimate opening to triumphant close.

At least half of Far East Suite is as engrossing as Ellington has ever been to my ears, and “Isfahan” alone should earn it space on anyone’s shelf.

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