In December 2021, during the first Holiday Pops after a COVID-induced hiatus, the Pops brought out the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn version of the “Nutcracker Suite.” In addition to brilliant jazz orchestration, the work also retitled all the movements—so “Dance of the Reed Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie-Toot,” “Arabian Dance” becomes “Arabesque Cookie,” and “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry.”
Our director suggested from the podium that “Sugar Rum Cherry” sounded like it should be a cocktail, and basically dared me to create that cocktail. So I created not one, but two variations on a theme.
One of the things that happened when I got to the University of Virginia was that I began to branch out in my musical tastes—or, maybe more precisely, I began to explore each of the branches I had already grown to like. In this case, it was jazz, and while I had made mix tapes containing jazz music before, this was the first to be (almost) entirely devoted to jazz.
I found my way into jazz from Sting, whose band in the mid to late 1980s was made up of jazz musicians; from summer concerts at Fort Monroe; and from my mom’s record collection. She had some Ahmad Jamal and Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis—nothing too outré but enough to convince me that I wanted to listen to more. I also knew, from U2, that I ought to listen to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I didn’t really know anyone else who listened to jazz, so I had to find my own way in.
Because I liked to read liner notes, I found myself drawn to the Original Jazz Classics reissue series of classic jazz albums on CD when I was at UVA. There was so much context on the back of those albums! You could see who the players were, read reviews, and more without even opening the album. That’s how I started to dig back into some of the great ’50s and ’60s recordings. I also picked up the threads of Sting’s band, listening to Branford, then Wynton, then Wynton’s band and Kenny Kirkland.
Because I have never been able to focus exclusively, a couple of jazz-adjacent tracks snuck onto this mix. Most notably, “Escalay” from the Kronos Quartet Pieces of Africa appears. While this is nominally a classical or world music track, it has enough in common with the works around it—a strong rhythmic foundation, a modal scale, an improvised solo—to fit in nicely. The other, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” was added to provide an anchor point for some of the other explorations of blues through the jazz idiom on Side 2. And I couldn’t figure out how to end the mix, so I dropped some Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in; it fits better than you’d think because of the vocal improvisation and the general mood.
For the actual jazz tracks, there’s a pretty good range of stuff. Of course we touch on Kind of Blue, but there’s also Coltrane’s Sound and Ellington Indigos. I really like the tracks from Marcus Roberts, the pianist and composer who was the nucleus of Wynton Marsalis’s late-1980s/early-1990s band. And there are a couple of nice sets on the second side, with the early jazz workouts of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins contrasting with the more abstract work of Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman and Kenny Kirkland.
Duke Ellington, in 1967, was in the prime of his post-peak creative years. Having spent some time between labels building his reputation as an elder statesman, as we saw last week with Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, he was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1965 (though ironically no award was given that year; he is said to have joked “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young”). He was still recording major works, including the Far East Suite in 1966. And he was touring and performing with dozens of other musicians. I’ve reviewed a record from that period, when he performed with the Boston Pops; see my write up of The Duke at Tanglewood, which I found ultimately dissatisfying due to the lack of simpatico between Ellington and his competent, yet square, stage-mates.
No such problem exists between the performers in today’s recording. Ella & Duke at the Côte d’Azur feels as though it ought to have been a bootleg due to the electricity of the crowd energy that’s captured and that clearly infects the performers. It is, in a word, jumpin’.
Ella and Duke had recorded several times together by the time this recording was made in 1966, starting in 1957 when she collaborated with Ellington on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book. Part of her great Song Book series in which she elevated the work of American songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to canon, this was the only record in which she performed with the songwriter himself. She had also recorded Ella at Duke’s Place in the studio in 1965, and The Stockholm Concert, 1966 was cut earlier the same summer that the two met at the International Festival of Jazz for a series of concerts. The double LP here is apparently only a taste of the combined performances; together they recorded some 80-plus tracks, which eventually saw release in an 8 CD Verve set in 1998 as the Côte d’Azur Concerts.
What’s striking is how much fun Ella, in particular, seems to be having. She gets a full two choruses into “Mack the Knife” before she starts scatting and improvising over the band. According to the liner notes, there was no arrangement for the tune—they just started playing, and it’s audible in the music as it goes through multiple key changes. At one point, Ella sings “We’re making a record of the same old song… we swung old Mackie down for you people here at the Jazz Festival! We’re going to sing, we’re going to swing, we’re going to add one more chorus!” And she adds another two choruses, then a third, going up a half step in between each one. You can hear the socks of the crowd being blown off.
While Ella and Duke play together on the first track, many of the remaining numbers are played only by one group or the other, starting with Ellington’s usual group—Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Mercer Ellington, Buster Cooper, Sam Woodyard, etc.— on “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues.” The liner notes call out the tune’s similarity to “Night Train,” but it’s a fun enough romp nonetheless.
Ella’s group takes the stage next. She’s backed by the Jimmy Jones piano trio featuring Jim Hughart on bass and the mighty Grady Tate on drums. Her “Lullaby of Birdland” is not very lullaby-like, but it’s delightful nonetheless. This is followed by Ellington’s group, with Ellington announcing, “Buster Cooper will be the virtuosoist in ‘Trombonio-Bustiosso-Issimo.’” Cooper is hot indeed in the solo, with the band lighting a fire underneath him.
Ella’s group switches things up a bit with “Goin’ Out of My Head,” the newest composition on the record and a reminder of her late-sixties pop work on albums like her 1969 Ella. But if the tune sounds a little dated to modern ears, she gives it her all here. Ella never really belts on her records, but she certainly comes close on this one. Grady Tate provides a slightly samba-inflected beat behind the tune, swinging back into a rock beat in the chorus and keeping things lively throughout. She continues with “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” singing the Gershwin standard with nuance and subtlety and taking us into a different world for an all too brief moment.
Ellington’s band returns for a medley of “Diminuendo in Blue/Blow by Blow,” with Ellington growling and shouting encouragement to his players above the fray. Paul Gonsalves reprises an abbreviated version of his infinite solo from the famed Newport 1956 concerts. Next the band begins a performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing” that has the crowd applauding from the first chords of the tune, and Ella joins them in, breaking up as Ellington shouts inaudible encouragement from the piano. After a few verses and some spectacular scatting from Ella, another from Ellington’s band steps up and trades scat bars with her. But Ella cannot be imitated or brushed off, and she carries the rest of the song, dropping in a reference to “A Hard Day’s Night” before driving the song to closure. The Ellington band concludes this set with “All Too Soon,” providing Ray Nance an opportunity to show off his violin playing together with Ben Webster and Buster Cooper. There’s no showboating here, just solid solos from all three protagonists.
Ella’s band returns with settings of “Misty” and “So Danço Samba,” called “Jazz Samba” on the original label but corrected on my copy. “Misty” is played straight and sensitively, with a closing straight out of the Sarah Vaughan playbook, but “So Danço Samba” is something else again. Combining a sensitive approach to the Brazilian original with interspersed scatting, a touch of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and ending with a whispered beat-box of a vocal solo that has her trading percussive licks with Grady Tate before she takes a resurgent and triumphant sung conclusion, she cracks up the band and takes the crowd by storm.
The Ellington band returns with a request, a “totally unprepared, unrehearsed, no arrangement” version of “Rose of the Rio Grande.” Buster Cooper takes the solo on his trombone, duetting with Sam Woodyard’s bass in a brief interlude and closing the whole work out in a roaring crescendo. Ella’s band then takes over with an achingly tender “The More I See You” before yielding again to Ellington for “The Matador (El Viti).” Ella rejoins Duke for a final performance of “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me),” where she trades scat syllables and bluesy growls with the great pianist and trades verses with Ben Webster, and finally addresses the audience, “You’ve made us sentimental, the way you received our show/We’d love to squeeze you, really don’t want to tease you.” The audience returns the expressed affection with a roar of applause, bringing the set to an end.
This brings our series on Duke Ellington to a fitting close, as I’ve run out of vinyl with his compositions. We’ve heard many different sides of the man: the innovative composer, the bandleader who played the orchestra like a piano, the sensitive, intuitive collaborator, and finally the master showman. There’s a lot more Ellington to explore, but the calendar is turning. Next week we’ll be exploring something very different.
Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by Ellington, Ellington at Newport, Black, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington Uptown, A Drum is a Woman, Such Sweet Thunder, Jazz Party (featuring the debut of the Billy Strayhorn tune “U.M.M.G.”), and the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder.
However, by 1962 his contract with Columbia had come to an end, and in a way this ushered in an even more significant period in Ellington’s development, as he began to record sessions for other labels with an array of artists. From this period came his great collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle, and two collaboration albums on Impulse! Records, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.
It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge that we have stepped into the timeline of Impulse! Records. One of the undisputedly great jazz labels alongside Blue Note and Verve (and later, CTI), Impulse! was established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor, who may be the most significant contribution to jazz music to have come from Pearlsburg, Virginia. At Bethlehem Records, his first recording, a session backing vocalist Chris Connors with Ellis Larkins’ piano trio, earned him the position of head of A&R for the label. He parlayed this brief but successful stint into a role at ABC-Paramount, where he created Impulse! as a subsidiary label with the tagline “The New Wave in Jazz.” Creating immediate success with records by Gil Evans, Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and others, Taylor’s lasting accomplishment was to sign John Coltrane to the label in 1960. Due to Coltrane’s long association with the label, it became known as “The House That Trane Built.” Taylor left Impulse! for Verve in 1961, leaving the session Coltrane recorded with Ellington to Trane’s long-time producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. (We’ll see Creed Taylor again.)
Ellington did not bring along his orchestra, or even his usual horn players, to the session. Without a regular record contract, he could not keep the band together indefinitely. Instead, bringing drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Aaron Bell, he met Coltrane on more or less equal footing.
This recording found Coltrane at an interesting point in his development. While still performing with the Miles Davis Sextet, he had recorded music with an increasingly avant-garde flavor, perhaps culminating in the residency at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner that saw a release as Impressions. Critics were bitterly divided over the work, misunderstanding Trane’s searching approach, and 1962 apparently brought some retrenchment, with a greater focus on ballads, but no lack of innovation in the playing. Trane had just stabilized the membership in his own Great Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman on bass; Garrison and Jones join Coltrane on this session, and indeed support Ellington on all but two of the numbers.
As with Money Jungle, Ellington paired with the new players brings a sense of fresh spontaneity and depth to the album, many of the selections on which are familiar Ellington standards. The opener, “In a Sentimental Mood,” could not be performed more delicately by the band, with Jones’ muscular but nuanced hand at the drums joining Aaron Bell on bass. Trane’s melodic playing seems to search through the key changes of the tune, but never goes “out” in the way some of his earlier work stretches beyond space and time. Instead, he seems anchored to our world through the combination of Ellington’s gentle arpeggiated introduction and Jones and Bell’s steady, subtle pulse.
“Take the Coltrane” is one in a series of Ellington compositions devoted to musicians with whom he collaborated, and it’s a remarkable achievement, highlighting both Trane’s arpeggiated “sheets of sound” and a slyly modal melody. Elvin Jones does unnaturally wonderful things on the hi-hat throughout, and Trane’s solo is of a piece with the work he was recording on his own Impulse! recordings. This recording features both Bell and Garrison on bass, and both plus Jones support Trane under his solo while Ellington steps aside. When Duke returns, he slyly drops in a little “Ooh Pa Pa Da” as though in reference to the bop origins of the tune. It’s genuinely fun.
“Big Nick,” the sole Coltrane original on the record, is a fun, loping melody that takes the harmonic ideas of “Giant Steps” and swings them, creating a slow blues that rides on Jimmy Garrison’s loping bass line. Coltrane’s solo takes off for something like the outer stratosphere but never loses the blues progression, so that when he yields the floor to Duke his more straightforward take on the blues feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than a rebuke. But it really all comes back to the melody, one of the quirkiest and most fun that Coltrane authored.
“Stevie” carries on the swing but in a more Ellingtonian harmonic language, swerving from a minor blues into a major key. His introductory choruses veer through at least three different modes before returning to the original minor. Trane mostly stays within the first minor mode for his solo, which carries flavors of “Impressions” in its blistering runs but never goes too far outside. Ellington’s initial take on the melody stays cool in contrast to Coltrane’s heat, finishing with a low tolling note to close out the first side.
“My Little Brown Book” is one of the most gorgeous ballads on the record. The Ellington introduction, with Woodyard and Bell backing, revisits the feeling of “In a Sentimental Mood,” but when Coltrane enters on the melody of this Strayhorn composition, we’re suddenly swaying to a half heard melody on an empty dance floor somewhere near midnight. This is Trane at his most romantic, with echoes of his performance of “I’ll Wait and Pray” from Coltrane Jazz, and the rest of the band is there for him, with only small ripples from Ellington disturbing the serenity of the track.
“Angelica” is, for me, the standout track here. Just listen to that opening beat from Elvin Jones, and the bounce that carries over to Ellington’s opening choruses, backed up by a jubilant Garrison. Coltrane’s entry keeps the swing going, and he plays it pretty safe for the first few choruses. Then on that fourth, after Ellington drops out and it’s just him and the rhythm, he cuts loose, with sheets of sound swirling around the beat, never losing the swing but somehow taking a step left through a door into, well, a John Coltrane record. After that chorus, he brings it back to the melody, and you can hear Ellington recalibrating his approach before he re-enters. It sums up so much about the connection between Coltrane’s approach and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that had come before him, and is a complete blast to listen to. And maybe even dance: I want Elvin Jones playing that beat for my entry music as I stroll, sashay and jitterbug into heaven.
“The Feeling of Jazz” brings us back to a slow blues to close out the album. True to its title, it bridges both Trane’s searching quality and Ellington’s formalism to give us something that feels like a little of both worlds. Trane’s solo continues throughout most of the song; we are reminded of the time he told Miles, the latter having asked why he played such a long solo, that “it took that long to get it all in.” At the end, Trane finally steps back from the microphone and Ellington and his rhythm section play through the fade-out, the elder titan getting the last word.
In the liner notes to the album, Trane famously remarked, “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity.” The whole session was recorded in a single day on September 26, 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, just eight days after the recording of “Up ’Gainst the Wall” that rounds out Impressions. But the album speaks for itself, the meeting of two giants and of two sympathetic musicians who bring their separate conceptions of the music into a unified whole. It remains as spontaneous and fresh for me today as when I first heard it almost thirty years ago.
I may have given the impression that, following Duke Ellington’s career resuscitation at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, he recorded nothing but works aimed at solidifying his artistic credentials. Certainly Black, Brown and Beigefits that description. But he—and Columbia Records—were not averse to recording more commercial music, either. Today’s record has eight* ballads, only three closely associated with Duke Ellington and his band, played in dance-friendly format. There are no sixteen minute suites here; exotic key changes are held to a minimum. For the most part this is just Ellington’s band playing it straight. And that’s the appeal of the record, because this band could play it straight and still zigzag your socks right off.
The opening is one of the great performances of Ellington’s signature “Solitude,” with the composer himself at the piano. He takes it freely for the first minute or so, until the arrival of Jimmy Woode on bass and Sam Woodyard on drums clicks things into tempo, followed by an entrance by the horns en masse. (It’s hard to resist the idea that they all came in from the subway at the same time, and snuck into the studio where Ellington was already hard at work.) The arrival of the trumpets about three minutes in is appropriately fanfare like, but the whole arrangement is remarkable. I’d really like to hear a version of this that’s just Ellington’s piano; he does some astonishing things behind the band, and brings the tune back into focus in a solo conclusion. It’s a four minute long symphony.
Richard Rodgers’ “Where or When” features a breathy Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, with interjections from the other horns providing punctuation throughout. This tune has always struck me as feeling like a single sentence, and here the sentence builds to a joyous rhapsody for solo saxophone. It’s a quiet showstopper.
“Mood Indigo” begins with a statement of purpose from Ellington on the piano, but quickly yields the floor to Shorty Baker’s trumpet. Following his verse, the entire band takes up the chorus, spotlighting the amazing unity and singleness of purpose of this ensemble. Baker’s trumpet returns over the horns, who pause to let him speak before everyone comes back together.
“Autumn Leaves” is one of the tunes that is considerably different depending on which version of the record you hear. My CD copy* had a lengthy rendition with verses sung in both French and English by Ozzie Bailey, while the LP omits the French verse entirely. Both versions feature a poignant violin solo by Ray Nance both opening and closing the track. The longest performance on the album, it carries a deep melancholy.
“Prelude to a Kiss” has some of the same energy of the A-side’s opening “Solitude,” with the horns hinting at some of the energy of that number, but ultimately proves to be a more intimate number, with Johnny Hodges’ alto romancing the listener all the way through.
The next number on the vinyl release, “Willow Weep for Me,” brings back Shorty Baker on trumpet, but effectively functions as a solo for the entire band, with the saxophones providing an introduction that slides down the scale into the key. The pianist states the theme, followed by Baker’s forthright trumpet response, and they continue to trade bars of the melody throughout, with the rest of the horns serving as a Greek chorus commenting on the solos.
“Tenderly” is conceived as a duet for Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, and the first two chorus is taken out of time. The following calls the dancers to the floor, with Woode and Woodyard underpinning their steps. Finally, when the band comes in, Hamilton takes flight, his obligato entwining the final chorus, which ends on a moment of seeming finality—until Hamilton and Ellington return to tag the final eight bars again in free time, as a sort of final signature.
The last track on the stereo vinyl release, Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” is nominally a solo for Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, but also features some fine trumpet playing in the second verse, and closes out the album as a swooning dance number. The album itself repays listening closely to see how Ellington put his orchestra together, as well as how he and Strayhorn got the maximum emotional impact from each tune. Highly recommended for late night listening.
You can listen to the album here:
*I first came across this recording a year or so after graduating from UVA, in the 1987 CD reissue, which has ten tracks and a different running order. And apparently the mono release has different performances than the stereo release. So the point is, if you see a copy in a different format, it’s worth picking it up and listening to see what’s different.
Black, Brown and Beige (1958) by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson.
Album of the Week, November 5, 2022
We rejoin Duke Ellington in 1958, and much has changed from the 1951 release ofMasterpieces by Ellington. Following the long-form recording breakthroughs of that album, Duke dove into avant garde compositional forms (Uptown), re-recordings of his own music as solo piano arrangements (The Duke Plays Ellington, later reissued as Piano Reflections), and relative obscurity. At this point in his career, his main income was compositional royalties, and he didn’t have a record deal. He is said to have booked his band into ice skating rinks so that he could keep them busy enough to pay them.
Then came the band’s 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, captured in the famous Ellington at Newport recording, and suddenly Ellington was hot again. I won’t be writing about that album at length (at least not right now), as I don’t have a vinyl copy, but it utterly jump-started his career, leading to a recording contract with Columbia Records. Columbia lost no time in capitalizing on his new popularity, and a series of recordings followed that mark some of the high points of the Duke’s output. One of them was Black, Brown and Beige, which revisited a work that Ellington had composed in 1943 for his first-ever appearance at Carnegie Hall.
Leonard Feather’s notes for the original suite describe a hugely ambitious work: “Black, the first movement, is divided into three parts: the Work Song; the spiritual Come Sunday; and Light. Brown also has three parts: West Indian Influence (or West Indian Dance); Emancipation Celebration (reworked as Lighter Attitude); and The Blues. Beige depicts ‘the Afro-American of the 1920s, 30s and World War II’.” The original performance received a lukewarm reaction, with critics objecting to the attempt to blend jazz and classical music. But when Ellington revised the suite in 1958, these objections were largely by the wayside, as the growing “third stream” movement had opened the door for jazz to cross over into other genres.
Still, Ellington did simplify the concept of the suite even as he expanded it. The 1958 revision essentially stripped the suite back to focus primarily on the themes from Black, “Work Song” and “Come Sunday.” In doing so, the suite becomes a meditation on the contrast of the African-American slave experience and the the Church, a point underscored by the groundbreaking inclusion of Mahalia Jackson as the vocalist.
It’s tempting to skip directly to “Come Sunday” in reviewing the album, but the degree to which “Work Song” shapes the suite and lays out Duke’s narrative intention should not be overlooked. The opening pounding drums of Part I are all that remain of the original narrative opening of the suite, and a peek at the score here is revelatory. The opening notes state:
A message is shot through the jungle by drums. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Like a tom-tom in steady precision. Like the slapping of bare black feet across the desert wastes. Like hunger pains. Like lash after lash as they crash and they curl and they cut. DEEP!
Ellington, opening notes to Black, Brown and Beige
Ellington was firmly grounding “Work Song” in the context of dislocation and enslaved labor, and returns to this theme over and over to emphasize this opening fact of African-American history.
In this context, “Come Sunday” comes as an almost revolutionary statement of hope. In the first statement, in Part II of the suite, the theme is played by the band, with an interpolation of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by the trombones making explicit the connection to African-American spirituals. And it is visited by all the members of the orchestra in turn going into Part III, alternating with “Work Song,” as the first half of the album ends.
“Part IV”, opening the second side of the record, begins with just Ellington and Mahalia Jackson. At this point we should acknowledge how groundbreaking this moment was. Gospel singers didn’t cross over to other musical forms, at least not still remaining gospel singers. There were plenty who left the form, Sam Cooke and some of the other early soul singers among them, but for Mahalia Jackson, at this point indisputably the greatest living gospel artist, to collaborate with Ellington on this record was unprecedented. One suspects that producer Irving Townshend, who also had produced Jackson since her Columbia debut in 1955, had something to do with it.
Whatever the origin, this recording, and “Part IV,” mark the debut of Ellington’s lyrics for “Come Sunday.” And some lyrics they are. They are essentially a gospel statement of faith in the face of racial oppression:
Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through
I believe that sun and moon up in the sky
When the day is gray
I know it, clouds passing by
He'll give peace and comfort
To every troubled mind
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday
That's the day
Often we feel weary
But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret
He will hear your every prayer
After a reprise of the “Come Sunday” theme by Ray Nance’s violin (Part V), the suite concludes with Jackson’s improvised rendition of Psalm 23 in Part VI. The liner notes claim “on the last afternoon, Duke asked Mahalia to bring her Bible with her. He opened it to the Twenty-Third Psalm, played a chord, and asked her to sing.” The presence of orchestra accompaniment on this track suggest that the degree of improvisation in the final movement may be overstated here; still it’s a stunning vocal performance.
Ellington recorded the work on four days from February 4 to February 12, 1958. Six months before, the Little Rock Nine had entered Little Rock Central High School for the first time, and five months later, the first sit-ins were held at Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. It’s tempting to just hear this iteration of Black, Brown and Beige as a gospel meets jazz performance, but the full story places it solidly as a statement of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement and an important precursor to more explicit Civil Rights themed jazz suites like Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” (June 1958) and Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now” (1960).
I’ve written a little about Duke Ellington before, but not yet in this series. But he’s been at the back of much of what we’ve listened to, however distantly. When the pianist and composer Marcus Roberts (of whom we’ll hear more later) chose three composers to pay tribute to in his first solo jazz album, he chose Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Ellington, and it’s that foundational compositional genius that’s on display in this record.
Ellington’s music grew to fit the recording space allotted. Much of the earliest Ellington recordings, on 78 RPM records, were dance songs, constrained by the space available in the technology format but also by the genre. My late father-in-law used to talk about going dancing when Ellington’s band was playing (though he preferred Tommy Dorsey). But as the technology for recorded sound changed, Ellington shifted to longer forms: suites, expanded arrangements, and more orchestral-sounding performances. This record, released in 1951, was one of the first 12” LPs offering an unprecedented twenty-plus minutes per side. Ellington and his longtime arranger Billy Strayhorn, together with his standing band including (among others) Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonzales, Ray Nance, and Mercer Ellington, took full advantage of the space provided. (I’m reviewing a 2017 reissue of the album on 12” 45RPM heavyweight vinyl, released by Analogue Productions. It sounds incredible.)
“Mood Indigo” opens the album, and is one of the dance numbers that Ellington is best known for. Here it is revelatory, with the horns introducing the theme and yielding to a lugubrious solo reading of the theme by Harry Carney on the baritone sax, with Ellington’s piano gently accompanying. And then it gets interesting. The next chorus sees the horns return, but in a higher harmonization. Hodges takes the next two choruses, with the second one breaking the general legatissimo as Ellington stabs the chords beneath him. Another horn chorus seems to break free of time and tonality, but stays anchored in B♭. Ellington’s next solo tugs again at the key and finally pivots it upwards to E♭, where it stays as the vocalist Eve Duke (here credited as Yvonne Lanauze) takes a chorus and a verse, the horns underneath helping her shift into E♭minor and then back to the major, and finally back down to B♭. And so the arrangement goes for nearly 16 minutes, with additional surprises ahead including two choruses of growler muted trumpet, another free exploration that seems to break free of key, an excursion into waltz time, a trombone solo, and even more.
“Sophisticated Lady” is another Ellington dance number that becomes a suite in this reading. A brisk piano introduction yields to the bass clarinet of Harry Carney and back to Ellington’s phantasmagorical chords. When Ray Nance’s trumpet steps in, it’s a clarion call, like the sun coming through the clouds. Eve Duke’s returning vocals shift the key from A♭up to D♭. Ellington takes a free solo that is capped with the horns entering in a fanfare that becomes a recapitulation, and the band takes it to a climactic resolution.
“The Tattooed Bride” is the most recent of Ellington’s compositions on this record. Written in 1948, it becomes a showcase here for Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, which opens the first statement of the chorus. The band embraces the brisker tempo, with the horns throwing bits of the melody to each other, and then shifting into a minor key as the bride, apparently, begins swing dancing. Hamilton’s clarinet returns in a meditation on the theme that’s punctuated by a blast from the horns, and finishes the tune on a high, sustained F as the horns anchor the tune.
The record closes with “Solitude,” another blue Ellington ballad. Here Ellington introduces the melody almost at a trot, and then the band arrives and settles the tempo down to a more meditative stroll for the first chorus. When they drop out entirely, the piano solo stops time for an eternity before Johnny Hodges returns to take us back into chronology. The trumpet underscores the intensity of the moment before the band shifts once more, this time bringing forward the clarinet and trombone, who picks up the tempo for the final chorus before swooning to the finish.
Listening to this album, it’s easy to hear the truth of the old saying about Ellington: that he played the orchestra like a piano, and played the piano like an orchestra. The album captures Ellington in true high fidelity, as the transition to the LP and to recording on magnetic tape offered himsonic palette of seemingly unlimited color, with which to paint his masterpiece. But this would not be the last time Ellington adjusted his approach to recording. When we hear him next week, he will be in very different surroundings.
I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.
We come to the end, for now, of this series of posts about the records I’ve found featuring Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops in their 1960s-1970s heyday—primarily because, with one exception (a reissue of the Carmen Ballet), we’ve come to the end of my LPs. So I figured we should go out with a bang. This is The Duke at Tanglewood, a 1966 record of a 1965 performance of Duke Ellington and a rhythm section playing with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops through orchestral arrangements of some of Ellington’s greatest compositions, live from the Shed at Tanglewood. I ask you: how could I resist?
Ellington wrote the liner notes for this release, and I can’t disagree with his concluding line: “Ah, but it was a wonderful night for the piano player.” The Duke is in fine form here, dropping a magnificent piano solo atop “Caravan,” dialoging with the orchestra in “The Mooch,” and generally having a great time.
It was not as wonderful a night for the orchestra. Though in some pieces (“Caravan,” notably), the Richard Hayman orchestrations broaden the palate of Ellington’s compositions tremendously, in others his tendency to knock the corners off syncopations dulls the impact a bit — Squaresville! In terms of sound and verve, the Boston Pops brass, though mighty, is no match for a Duke Ellington horn section. And some of the arrangements (“The Mooch”) can seem a bit thick. When more restraint is used, as in Hayman’s great arrangement of “Love Scene,” the results are striking.
Overall, though, it’s the most thoroughgoing of any of the collaborations we’ve reviewed on this trip through the Pops discography, and ultimately the most successful.
Today’s holiday album that doesn’t suck is…well, not really a holiday album. This 1960 recording of Ellington and his orchestra collects three big band arrangements of well-known suites, classical and otherwise: Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suite, Ellington’s own “Suite Thursday,” and the reason for this disc’s inclusion in my holiday “must listen” pile, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
What Ellington and his band do to this chestnut has to be heard to be believed. Who knew that Piotr Illych could swing this hard? (Well, maybe Piotr Illych did. He was a pretty wacky cat.) The suite takes on new life and color in Duke’s able hands. The orchestration is superb, with melody lines jumping from instrument to instrument and big satisfyingly crunchy chords filling out the corners of the familiar Nutcracker melodies. But the real story is in Duke’s rhythmic innovations around the edges of the melodies. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” here recast as “Sugar Rum Cherry,” is played as a slow slinky swinger. The Russian Dance (“Volga Vouty”) is almost funky as a slow burner. And the faster numbers rock out, with the March (“Peanut Butter Brigage”), Entr’act, and Arabesque Dance (“Arabesque Cookie”) swinging so hard that even the most seasoned swing dancer would break a sweat on the ballroom floor.
After years of my sister’s ballet class dancing the Nutcracker, I never thought of the music as a holiday must listen, but this recording changed my mind. Duke and his band turn it into a modern holiday classic.