Rockin' in Rhythm

Edited by Gary Giddins
Coordinated by Elora Alexander

There may be no other recording by Ellington or anyone else that splashes so many colors, weaves so many fabrics, taps into so many strands of rhythm, and pulls it all off with such earthy swing and elegant blues as the 1966 Far East Suite. It also ranks— in the original RCA Living Stereo vinyl pressing (with the white dog on the black label) or on the Special Mix CD reissue— as one of the best-sounding Ellingtons, letting us fully grasp the tonal wonders at play. It should have been a more influential album than it was. Rock-jazz fusion would have been a lot more interesting had its pioneers taken their cues from "Blue Pepper." Third Stream might have carved a dozen new tributaries from "Ad Lib on Nippon." Astor Piazzolla seems less novel after revisiting the tango staccato of Duke's solo on "Mount Harissa." And, of course, there is sheer beauty. One could usefully divide the world into two kinds of people: those who swoon over Johnny Hodges's solo on "Isfahan" and those who don't— not just for his gorgeous tone but for his (literally) breathtaking pauses. It represents a peak for Ellington, his band, and jazz itself. — Fred Kaplan

Ellington's patriotic pleasure (as opposed to, say, fervor) is nowhere more apparent than in his many works about the heroes and culture of those he called My People. When he writes about the American Negro, his music is consistently illuminated by a nostalgic melodicism, a knowing serenity. Neither anger, bitterness, nor alienation intrude. To trace the arc of those works, from "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" through Three Black Kings, is to glean the suggestion that no one was ever born more blessed than the black American; to partake is to share the certainty. If Jack Benny and Bing Crosby made all Americans a little Jewish and a little Irish, Ellington makes us all a little darker. Think of the marked loveliness of "Black Beauty," the marching sass that parts the curtains on "Sepia Panorama," the musing sweetness of the violin transition in "Black," the incomparably noble hymn that is the payoff in Harlem. What all these melodies have in common is an introspective musicality that eschews lyrics and pop extrapolations. Like Gershwin, Ellington wrote tunes to sing, and others that can only be hummed. Think of "Echoes of Harlem," "Black Butterfly," "A Portrait of Bert Williams," "Harlem Air Shaft," "Conga Brava," "Ko-Ko"— a world within his world and ours. —Gary Giddins

Choosing a favorite Ellington recording is like being asked to choose an all-time favorite meal— only grand epicureans like Duke himself (see Music Is My Mistress) can be that selective. I can't single out recordings, or, for that matter, editions of the band, but I can easily select my favorite Ellingtonian. Recording exclusively with Ellington and members of the Ellington camp during his three-year career, bassist Jimmy Blanton seems to have been willed into being by Duke. Here's a kid from Chattanooga who plays perfect bass from note one, entering the band just when two other geniuses, Billy Strayhorn and Ben Webster, come onboard. Blanton swoops in just long enough to lift the band to a dazzling new peak and, in the process, revolutionizes the role of his instrument; then, his mission accomplished, vanishes as abruptly as he appeared, as if Jimmy Blanton were but a dream of Duke's that we all get to share. —Steve Futterman

My lifelong passion for Ellington began— or rather exploded— in 1938, when I heard his just-released "New Black and Tan Fantasy" on a Boston radio station. A few years before, like millions of teenagers, I had been thrust into the jazz life after hearing the Benny Goodman band on Camel Caravan, but the Duke's eerie, mysterioso minor blues left Benny far behind. Barney Bigard unloosed his woody New Orleans clarinet's seamless upward glissando, backed by Duke's mounting chord slashes, while Tricky Sam Nanton's lewd plunger was slopping it up to reach an almost unbearable intensity, only to be topped by Cootie Williams at his most fearsome, goaded by the full band's jubilant shouts. I shared Charles Mingus's first response upon hearing an Ellington Cotton Club broadcast: "I screamed." Immediately I ran to the local record shop: "What have you got by Duke Ellington! Where is it! Give me all of it!" Sixty years later, I'm still saying it. —Grover Sale

Duke Ellington wrote "The Art is in the Cooking," and his 1963 recording Afro Bossa is a marvelous confirmation of his modus operandi. Like a master chef, he started with his main ingredient, the big band; added danceable dashes of African, Caribbean, and Latin rhythmic tinges and textures and created one of his most succulent and swinging musical dishes. The title cut is a "gutbucket bolero" driven by the rhythm section's Ravelian riffs, while "Moonbow" and "Bongu/Empty Town Blues" are Afro-anthemic, movable melodic feasts. On the Spanish tinge tip, "Purple Gazelle" is a "ragtime-cha-cha" with Cootie Williams's and Ray Nance's clarion trumpet flights. Nance's gypsy violin shines through the habanera-hazed "Siempre Amore," and "Volupte" and "Tigress" are similarly syncopated— the latter, with the Afro-Iberian warmth of Paul Gonsalves's tenor sax. "Angu," a so-called blue tango, is illuminated by Billy Strayhorn's haunting, crystalline mandolinlike piano chords. "Absinthe" is a Hitchcockian, cinematic slow drag, directed by Ellington's piano, while "The Eighth Veil" sounds like the theme to a hip '60s TV show and "Pyramid," the 1937 classic from trombonist Juan Tizol, is updated with a more pronounced Middle Eastern flavor. Simply put, Afro Bossa justifies Duke Ellington's moniker as the World's Greatest Listener, and one hell of a cook. —Eugene Holley Jr.

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