Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Album of the Week, November 19, 2022

Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by EllingtonEllington at NewportBlack, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington UptownA Drum is a WomanSuch Sweet ThunderJazz 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.

You can listen to the album here:

Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil

Album of the week, June 4, 2022.

Many of the musicians in this series must be described in the past tense, but Wayne Shorter is still with us. We heard his tenor voice last time as a member of Miles Davis’ band. Today we’re going to look at an album he recorded after that run of dates on the road—an album that still stands among the greatest small group jazz recordings ever.

Wayne Shorter started his career in the Army, serving for two years after graduating from New York University, and playing in a combo with Horace Silver. He was subsequently hired by Art Blakey, who made a career out of finding promising young players and giving them opportunities to shine. During the time when Shorter was in the Jazz Messengers, Blakey’s band, he played alongside trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Reggie Workman, Freddie Hubbard, and pianist Cedar Walton at various times. (We’ll hear from many of these artists later.) Even among this group of young giants, Shorter stood out, eventually becoming the band’s musical director.

Shorter played a few gigs with Miles in 1962 but stayed committed to Blakey’s group, finally giving in and joining Miles for good in the summer of 1964. The group toured extensively through Europe that summer and fall; in addition to the Berlin date we wrote about last time, there are also radio sessions documenting concerts in Paris, Sindelfingen (West Germany), and Copenhagen. When the band returned, with no Davis recording sessions imminent, he hit Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The first session, in November, yielded three takes that were rejected by Blue Note. The second session, on Christmas Eve, 1964, yielded a masterpiece.

Shorter had already recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1964, with a group consisting of Coltrane sidemen (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones) that established his abilities as a leader and a composer, but cast him as a Coltrane disciple. This time around the compositional voice was more assured and also beginning to speak a different language, with modal influences from Miles. That’s not all the record borrows from his work with the Miles Davis Quintet; his bandmates Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter joined him for the recording, alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones. (We’ll hear more about all these musicians.)

Shorter starts off the album with “Witch Hunt,” a modal, bluesy track that features strong playing from Hubbard over a relaxed groove courtesy of Hancock and Carter. Hancock’s time in Miles’ group is apparent in his accompaniment, which drops chords into the spaces left by the horns as he brings the band along on the changes. Elvin Jones keeps the time with a relaxed swing, but turns up the heat as the group shifts gears into the chorus and as Shorter’s solo gets hotter, finding a new rhythmic pattern. Carter keeps an implacable heartbeat below all the players. And Shorter and Hubbard trade solos over the rhythm section, finding different approaches to the loping melody that opens the track.

“Fee Fi Fo Fum” is in nearly the same tempo, but relaxes further into the groove and drops a minor third down the chord that “Witch Hunt” explores, lending the impression of continuing the thought that the opening track started. Here Hubbard opens with a brief solo before yielding the floor to Shorter, who brings several different tonalities around the melody before passing the ball back to Hancock.

“Dance Cadaverous” continues the groove in waltz time. The first side of the album, in fact, feels like a slowly unfolding exploration of the same musical idea, with different melodic ideas continuing in the same mode. The sound continues to swirl around the same tonality in a series of hypnotic melodies, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of the songs as slightly interchangeable.

That changes in a big way with the title track, which opens the second side of the album. Here the melody is both simpler, reliant on just three notes to express the statement of the core idea, and more developed, as it moves in and out of the opening tonality, then climbs chromatically up the octave topping out a ninth above, with Hancock closing the pattern with a cluster of chords that descends back to the tonic. The tune is memorable and insistent and sticks around as Jones and Carter dig into the swing underneath while Hancock sketches out the scale, exploring both the chordal patterns and different rhythms. As with other songs in this session, Hubbard’s solo goes high, but Shorter stays in the same range as the melody, persistently circling round the melodic idea.

Things get stripped back even further on “Infant Ryes,” a slow ballad where Shorter and Hancock both strip out all but the most essential notes. Carter’s bass heartbeat is the pulse that moves the ballad forward, functioning in much the same way that Paul Chambers’ bass work did on Coltrane’s “Naima.” Shorter’s solo seems suspended in mid-air above the bed of Hancock’s delicate chord work throughout (Freddie Hubbard sits this one out). It’s stunning and points the way toward a path that Shorter would walk throughout his career.

The album closes with another statement in three. “Wild Flower” is, even more than “Dance Cadaverous,” a waltz, with the two horns playing in close harmony on the opening statement, only to come into unison on the second part of the theme as though two flowers twined around each other and grew toward the sky. The soloists follow the melody into and out of minor keys, exploring around the theme above the ground held by Elvin Jones and Ron Carter, with Herbie Hancock’s slightly off-beat chords giving the impression of someone wandering onto the dance floor with one leg slightly shorter than the other. Like the entire album, it’s mysterious, moody, and more than a little joyous.

Shorter would record more albums for Blue Note (and we’ll hear some of them), but this is undeniably his best known outing for the label. A statement of his compositional and soloistic gifts, it’s a performance that’s rarely been equalled on record. Next week we’ll see what happens when three of these players return to the context of the Miles Davis Quintet not quite a month later.

My copy of the album is the Blue Note 75th Anniversary re-pressing. I’ve picked up a few Blue Note reissues in various lines and have always been pleased, perhaps no more so than with this one, which has the sound of the musicians completely present and lifelike. You can listen to the album here.