Music

Rockin’ in Rhythm

by

Ink on paper: “Six Persimmons” by Mu Ch’i. Two blue. One indigo. One blueblack. Two pearly white. Five in a row and one just below. In the background: empty space. That’s it. A masterpiece of 13th-century Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist painting. The caption says “deceptive simplicity.” Meaning “You think you can do this yourself?” Meaning the brush is moist, the strokes rapid and rough-edged, the composition asymmetrical. Meaning seven centuries later the fruit is still fresh. Sound on record: “Weary Blues,” track four on Back to Back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues. One bass. One piano. Two horns. Guitar and drums. Not a real blues or much of a melody. In the court of florid ambition, outwardly rustic. But inwardly disciplined, poised, unutterably relaxed. Bone-weary, ease down and pull off dirty work shoes. Head in hands, heart beating slowly. Ache all over. The music massages the air. Moist clumps of piano, ax-edged master strokes. In the background: empty space. The body smiles all over. That’s it. Seven centuries later, the soul is still smiling. —Martha Baylis

Ellington’s piano trios have never enjoyed the respect of his orchestral pieces. Given the amount of craft in something as substantial as Black, Brown and Beige, say, a case could be made that they don’t warrant equal esteem— deem the trios dinghies bobbing in the wake of luxury liners. But for me, “Springtime in Africa,” cut in 1961 with bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard, is as emotionally rich as any of the maestro’s more elaborate works. The closing track on Piano in the Foreground, this sketch, a twinkling really, is somewhat abstract and utterly ephemeral. No conventional melody is ever stated— notes are simply revoiced in a handful of ways. It’s as loose as Ellington the enterprising structuralist ever got. A savanna draped with mist, the anxious sleep belying the season’s auspiciousness: Ellington was Hitchcock’s equal at controlling tension, and here the composer waxes both pastoral and ominous. Currently unavailable domestically, “Springtime in Africa” is just as evocative an analogy of lives being lived as “Harlem Air Shaft.” Those who doubt the power of impressionism are urged to bask in its sparse voluptuousness. —Jim Macnie

One? Really? I have to choose ONE Ellington record? As Lorraine Hansberry once said when asked to pick her favorite Shakespeare play: “It is like choosing the ‘superiority’ of autumn days.” From which reference, you shouldn’t infer that I would pick Such Sweet Thunder. I love it, but I haven’t lived with it enough; the same holds for many of the early masterpieces. Truth is, I’ve always been partial to Duke’s late 1940s period, which never gets the props it deserves because of the imperishable glories that preceded it. There was a Columbia LP of 1947 sessions that was the first Duke album I’d bought off the rack. But I’m not going to pick that one. Instead, I’m going with a Musicraft collection, Happy-Go-Lucky Local, not because I think it’s a masterpiece, but because these 1946 sessions seem to embody the past, present, and future of Ellington’s art. There’s the bluesy aggression of the title tune, the sweet-tart rush of “Tulip and Turnip” and the grand ambition of “Diminuendo in Blue” and “The Beautiful Indians.” It may be hoity-toity to call it an aleph of Ellingtonia but that’s what it feels like to me. —Gene Seymour

Years ago, I was learning to play a batch of Duke Ellington tunes when I got deeply hooked on “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” In terms of architecture, it’s a relatively simple song. And that’s part of what grabbed me. The more I messed around with it, jamming off it, substituting harmonies, getting fancier and missing the point, the more it made salient some key Ducal techniques and, as important, how those techniques cued emotional responses. The chiasmic opening phrases work like contracting pincers. You feel the melodic waves of the melody’s emotional disturbance narrow, until the end of the verse brings its focus onto the pivotal punning line of the song’s title. By that time, you’re so much a part of the tune’s emotional motion you’re set for the bittersweet, somehow promising bridge, ending with its gently concentric phrases that rise, then tail off in a kind of halfhearted hope. I’ve never listened to or played it since without heart-tugs. —Gene Santoro

Money Jungle, the 1962 one-shot teaming of Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, produced a multitude of offbeat pleasures, none more arresting than the gently brooding “Les Fleurs Africaines.” More lonesome than lovesome, a study in cool detachment with its Zen-like minimalism and minor blues feeling, this latter-day three-minute masterpiece is haunting for reasons you still can’t quite figure. It’s like nothing else in the Ducal canon. Overseen by future Jimi Hendrix producer Alan Douglas, Money Jungle was a less-than-copacetic summit. But the un-trio’s division of sensibilities made for some fascinating tensions. Elegant even in tonally splintering the varied five-note phrases running through “Les Fleurs Africaines,” Ellington fed off Roach’s supple mallets while generally ignoring Mingus’s eerie chattering effects. Three weeks away from his disastrous Town Hall concert, the bassist sounds like he’s channeling bad omens. A month past his historic date with Coleman Hawkins and a couple of weeks away from his studio encounter with John Coltrane, Ellington was in his element— the only place he ever really knew. —Lloyd Sachs

As memorable as Duke’s best studio recordings are, there were nights— particularly at dances— when the band came to such joyous life that the musicians remembered the gig long after. For a glorious example, Duke Ellington at Fargo/1940. On a characteristically grueling tour of one-nighters, the musicians rolled into that North Dakota town, hungry and grumbling. But once they hit the stand, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Tricky Sam Nanton, Rex Stewart, et al. remembered why they had reached the peak of their careers as Duke’s sidemen. The two-CD set includes “Ko-Ko,” “Rumpus in Richmond,” “The Flaming Sword,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Across the Track Blues,” “Rose of the Rio Grande” (with Lawrence Brown’s exultant trombone solo), “Warm Valley,” and 39 other tracks. Also vividly present is Duke’s most astute and distinctive singer, Ivie Anderson. Jack Tower, the engineer who recorded that dance in Fargo, later became the nonpareil master of restoring vintage classics, as he did here. As Stanley Dance said in the notes, what happened that night “cannot be recreated or recaptured.” —Nat Hentoff

The summer of Sgt. Pepper was also the summer of The Far East Suite, recorded in
December 1966 and released the following June. Thirty years on, the greatest of Ellington’s later concept albums is an old friend, its grand sweep so familiar that I now listen to it for its small details. Take, for instance, “Blue Pepper,” which originally opened Side B and seemed an uncharacteristic bid for airplay, what with Rufus Jones’s boogaloo drumming. Now it seems to me one of the shrewdest bargains any jazz musician ever struck with rock, and who but Ellington would use Cat Anderson’s screech trumpet throughout the piece, instead of as a money shot, à la Kenton or Ferguson? Has anyone noticed that the brief “Depk” and “Amad” update “Ko-Ko,” employing some of the same harmonic language and massive orchestral effects? The suite is both ambitious composition and a showcase for a stellar group of improvisers: Gonsalves, Hodges, Carney, the unsung Jimmy Hamilton, the inimitable Lawrence Brown (who plays “Sheik of Araby” on “Amad”), and Ellington himself. By 1967, anything he did risked being thought of as an addendum, but substantial reputations have been based on no more than what he accomplished with this one album. —Francis Davis

Much of Ellington’s early history is evoked on “A Night at the Cotton Club” (1929). Savor the band’s extraordinary vitality, sophistication, and penchant for unusual tonal colorings, from the moment the first soloist— buoyant baritone saxophonist Harry Carney— is showcased against those still-surprising, brightly chiming brass accents on “Cotton Club Stomp.” We can feel, too, the dancing-showgirl spirit that underlay so many early Ellington numbers on “Freeze and Melt.” But we’re also reminded of biased racial attitudes Ellington had to overcome. It’s uncomfortable hearing manager Irving Mills (who owned 45 percent of the band and claimed co-composer credit on many tunes) patronizingly refer to Ellington as “Dukie.” But would Ellington have thrived as he did without Mills’s management and the early exposure at the Cotton Club? Bandleader Sam Wooding, who, along with King Oliver, declined the Cotton Club gig before it was offered to Ellington, remarked that Ellington was first among his peers to grasp the growing importance of radio. He asked me what might have happened had it been his band, not Ellington’s, on those many nationwide broadcasts from the Cotton Club? Who can say? —Chip Deffaa

A three-CD RCA set, The Blanton-Webster Band, spanning 1940­1942, is very special to me for several reasons. Ellington the composer had reached a peak. His priceless assemblage— i.e., Hodges, Cootie, Tricky Sam, Carney, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, Sonny, even singers Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries— were on unusually intimate terms with the music and their own roles within it. Collectively and individually, they helped define Ellington’s blues base, his melodic and harmonic singularity, and his urban sophistication. Bassist Jimmy Blanton and composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, both extremely gifted and relatively new to the band, added substantially to the quality and adventure of Ellington’s music. Try “Ko-Ko”(a blues triumph), “Concerto for Cootie,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Cotton Tail” (which forever etched Ben Webster in memory), and certainly Strayhorn’s “After All” and “Chelsea Bridge,” as well as the Mercer Ellington compositions. Even the commercial ballads had class. The package readily makes a point: Ellington and his associates set standards. —Burt Korall

Picking one Ellington recording over another is like saying you have one favorite redwood above all others. The concerts at the Olympia Theatre in Paris from February 1963, however, were exemplary because they allowed for exploration of the dance book while also including concert pieces. The original two-record LP was issued on Atlantic as The Great Paris Concert; the double-CD package includes 10 bonus tracks. But both run the gamut of Ellington’s repertoire from “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” “The Mooche,” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm” to the extended works, A Tone Parallel to Harlem and Suite Thursday. The band is in top form. Not only is Cootie Williams back in the ranks, but Ray Nance is in there with him. This edition has Lawrence Brown doing the plunger work. He didn’t particularly like to do it, but he did it well. The greats, Hodges and Carney, were still onboard, along with Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope, and Cat Anderson. Then there is bassist Ernie Shepard, who imbues the medium and faster numbers with a gutty swing, combining with the irrepressible Sam Woodyard to form a puissant pair. Paris Concert is a musical banquet. —Ira Gitler

To provide respite from the endless Czerny exercises and Clementi sonatinas that comprised the piano studies of my youth, my mother bought sheet music for popular tunes that had become standards. Most of the charts were characterized by simply delineated melodies with fillips of ornamentation supporting the vocals central to their conception. One of the lead sheets stood out: “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington. The cover featured an unadorned charcoal sketch of a woman’s face; inside, a complex and engrossing song unfolded. The formidable key signature (A-flat major) gave me pause, as did the dense, uncommon chords. The lyrics by Mitchell Parish profile a fascinating character. Musically and lyrically, the bridge delivers a knockout punch, effecting a mood shift that reverses itself with a clever, dramatic return to the head: “Is that all you really want? NO.” The 1933 copyright puts “Sophisticated Lady” in chronological company with such enduring songs as “My Ideal” and “My Silent Love.” For me, it was a different and edgier experience— my introduction to the music of Duke Ellington. —Karen Bennett

Call it perverse, or a nose-thumbing at this inevitable pick-one exercise, but I defend my choice of Ellington Uptown, a 1980s reissue (my copy is an LP) of a title from 1951­52— perhaps the nadir of the Ellington Orchestra’s existence— on two grounds. First, as a supreme example of Ellington’s resourcefulness. Johnny Hodges had just led the most serious mass defection in the band’s history, yet Ellington, undeterred, pushed forward, tacking toward bebop and his stars-to-be on “Take the A Train” (with Paul Gonsalves respinning Betty Roche’s scat feature) and “Perdido” (enter Clark Terry), expanding “The Mooche” to glorious effect, premiering A Tone Parallel to Harlem and adding the underrated Controversial Suite” and Louis Bellson’s “Skin Deep.” And where the album appeared in two different versions during the early years of LP, with either Harlem or Controversial omitted, the reissue contains all six titles. This gives me the feeling, however illusory, of being one up on the massive universe of Ellingtonia. —Bob Blumenthal

This year I am the same age Duke Ellington was when I bought my first Ellington LP on June 19, 1956. It was Ellington ’55 and it cost me $3.98, a sum no 14-year-old relinquished without agonizing inner debate. That’s why, in those days, when every LP represented a sacrifice, I made sure I got my money’s worth. Ellington ’55 was not just music, although “Black and Tan” struck me at first as weird and unearthly. It was an album, a kind of gestalt of aggregate elements that I focused on and absorbed as a whole. It was the reverb of the studio acoustics and the way they flattered the texture of the reeds. It was the uncluttered green Capitol label, the peculiar shimmer and ripple of the pressing, the clean elegance of the pink and black cover art, the flat lay of the cardboard. All were part of my introduction to Ellington at a delightfully impressionable age. The music itself (“One O’Clock Jump,” “In the Mood,” etc.) was mostly straight-ahead swing, only a part of what I’d get to know better. I’ve pulled Ellington ’55 off the shelf a lot since 1956 for purely noncombat pleasure purposes. It hasn’t told me much it didn’t tell me that first night I spent with it. But it reconnects me to the time I met Ellington with the wonder of a 14-year-old. And I like that. —John Mcdonough

Back in 1927, when I was 11 years old and in the fifth grade at Mobile County Training School on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, some 20-plus years before Kenneth Burke’s notion of art as basic equipment for living became a fundamental element in my conception of the pragmatic function of aesthetic statement, I was already trying to project myself as the storybook-heroic me that I wanted to be by doing a syncopated sporty limp-walk to the patent-leather avenue beat of Duke Ellington’s then very current “Birmingham Breakdown.” There were also highly stylized facial expressions, gestures, postures, and other choreographic movements that went with “Mood Indigo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Creole Love Call,” all of which were also elements in the texture of the troposphere of that part of my preteen childhood. But “Birmingham Breakdown” (along with old Jelly Roll Morton’s “Kansas City Stomp”) functioned as my personal soundtrack some years before Vitaphone movies came into being. In junior high school there was Ellington’s recording of “Diga Diga Do,” a novelty vocal that some of my classmates and I used as a cute little takeoff ditty on Talladega College, which along with Morehouse College in Atlanta and Fisk University in Nashville, was a choice liberal arts college, scholarship grants to which we as honor students were already competing with each other for. The Ellington swagger perennial from that period was “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Along with the advanced courses and grade-point average competition of senior high school, plus all of the ritual challenges of full-fledged adolescence, which, by the way, included the cosmopolitan standards of sartorial elegance set by the latest fashions in Esquire, a new men’s magazine, came “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” and “Delta Serenade.” Although “Stormy Weather,” “Cocktails for Two,” and “Truckin’ ” were not Ellington compositions, it was Ellington’s arrangements and recordings that established them as radio hits and stash-swagger-fare for hip cats. —Al Murray

Ellington Jazz Party is one from the Ellington shelf I travel with because it offers several short concerts and many moods on a single disk. The record’s fullest piece is Toot Suite, Duke’s 1959 festival-season special in four movements. This modernist work features the tightest, most mature reed and brass sections in jazz history, and showcases Britt Woodman, whose solo showcases the trombonist’s extraordinary range and powers of expression; Russell Procope, whose broken-key clicking (Duke told him not to worry— he liked it) adds flavor to his New Orleans gumbo-rich clarinet playing; and Paul Gonsalves, whose uptempo blues-playing is at its peak. This set’s other new pieces, “Malletoba Spank” and “Tymperturbably Blue,” feature nine percussionists from New York’s classical scene sounding off with and against the world’s finest drum set: the Ellington band. Incredibly, Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Rushing (long the star of the Count Basie band) also visit this studio jazz party. On “Hello Little Girl,” Rushing’s blue-flame tenor voice brilliantly contrasts with Diz’s twisting, muted trumpet. Then, as Ellington used to say in concert, it was “time for Johnny Hodges,” and his “All of Me” is shaped and smoothed with tones as intense as Romare Bearden oils on canvas. Recorded with an audiophile’s love of detail, Jazz Party is a masterpiece. —Robert O’meally

Blue Rose, the 1956 collaboration between Ellington and Rosemary Clooney, is sublime alchemy. A luminous high point of the vocal canon, Blue Rose also represents a triumph of disparate factors— a pairing of two idioms, two coasts, and two races, with Billy Strayhorn acting as ambassador. That the album came together at all is a small miracle. Clooney had been bridling against Columbia’s pop machine and the white-bread novelty hits like “Come-On-a My House” and “Botch-a-Me” that made her a star. But pregnant and unable to travel, she was marooned in L.A., while Ellington couldn’t leave New York. The solution— Ellington recorded in a New York studio and Clooney overdubbed at two sessions weeks later— is invisible. Strayhorn’s lush, sensitive arrangements, from “Sophisticated Lady” and “Just a-Sittin’ and a-Rockin’ ” to the hypnotic vocalise of the title track, reflect the time he spent with the singer at home, often planning the day’s work sitting on the edge of her bed. Clooney’s husky-smooth alto and flawless phrasing bring Ellington not only a swinging, seamless vocal line, but an uncommonly profound insight into the lyrics. The result is a Rolls Royce convertible, torqued for the Grand Prix. —Deborah Grace Winer

My favorite Ellington moment was captured on tape by BBC television in 1964. Ellington and the orchestra had only recently finished the tour that resulted in the wonderful Far East Suite. Perhaps the loveliest of its nine components is “Isfahan,” named for the Iranian city where, Ellington wrote, “everything is poetry.” Its languid theme— as sinuous and haunting as anything Ellington or Billy Strayhorn ever composed— was written to be played by the alto-saxophone master Johnny Hodges. But as so often happened, the music was not quite ready by the time of the performance— in this case, a live television concert to be broadcast throughout the British Isles. Any other bandleader would have substituted something well-worn rather than attempt a new composition for the very first time in front of God knows how many television viewers. Not Ellington: He wanted to hear “Isfahan” and he wanted to hear it now. And so, without a hint of anxiety, he offers one of his courtly on-camera introductions, then walks casually over to the saxophone section and in full view of the cameras holds the sheet music up in front of Hodges. Neither man looks directly at the other and Hodges, heavy-lidded and impassive as always, casts only sidelong glances at the music as his fingers move over the keys. The result is beautiful enough to break your heart. —Geoffrey C. Ward

“Acquire a proper and distinct articulation” was Ivie Anderson’s advice to younger singers. “Try to sing songs as if they were stories.” Ivie sang those stories with subtle inflection and such distinct articulation that she’d say “All God’s children . . . ,” not chillun. She became Duke’s first full-time vocalist in 1931; a year later she sang and scatted through the song that named the era, “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Her big hit, “Stormy Weather,” can still make you swallow hard. She also had to sing some of the sillier ditties of the era, but, as Bobby Short said, “She could sing the worst songs in the grandest way.” She became as integral to the band as its other great soloists. Entwining sinuously with Johnny Hodges’s alto or responding lushly to the warmth of Ben Webster’s tenor, she was another gorgeous Ellington instrument. With pinpoint intonation and a voice that modulated from crystal bells to smoky cello strings, she made masterworks of Ellingtonia: “Mood Indigo,” the effervescent “Skrontch,” and the wrenching “Solitude.” Listen to “I Got It Bad” as her near-operatic contralto shifts to throatiness with the line “We sin some.” Ivie left the band in 1942, plagued by the asthma that would contribute to her death seven years later, never quite reaching her rightful place in the pantheon of memory. —Don Rose

My Ellington epiphany happened by accident. The year was 1953, and Symphony Sid Torin had moved his late-night operation from New York City to a Boston radio station. One of the records he was pushing on the air was Louis Bellson’s “Skin Deep” feature with the Ellington band, popular enough to have been lifted from Columbia’s Ellington Uptown LP and issued as a 45 rpm single. I bought it, played it once— then discovered the other side, a kaleidoscopic six-minute update of “The Mooche.” Recorded in the acoustically glorious 30th Street studio, it gave us the “misterioso” clarinets of Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton (the latter off in a tiled bathroom somewhere), Quentin Jackson’s trombone (with tenor commentary by Paul Gonsalves), Harry Carney (magisterial, as ever), and (with Hodges off on his sabbatical) the superb
alto of Hilton Jefferson. Best of all, though, were Ray Nance’s plunger-driven cries of foreboding and anguish on trumpet, a sound like nothing I’d ever heard, guaranteeing my enraptured attendance the next time the Ellington band played Boston, and many, many times after that. All due respect to Bellson, a peerless drummer and lovely guy, but I never played “Skin Deep” again. —Richard M. Sudhalter

The only problem with the critical truism that Duke Ellington’s instrument was his orchestra is that it shortchanges his talents on his other instrument. Happily, Ellington’s prowess on piano was showcased on various solo, duo, and trio recordings, none more provocative than Money Jungle. On the surface, Ellington’s 1962 collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach— strong-willed modernists a quarter-century his junior— might seem like a somewhat desperate effort by the 63-year-old Ellington to prove he was au courant, especially in light of the fact that he had recorded with John Coltrane just three weeks earlier. But Ellington knew that you don’t have to prove how modern you are if you’ve already proved you’re timeless. Mingus and Roach knew it too, and they deserve as much credit for not being overcome with awe as Ellington does for venturing into unfamiliar rhythm-section territory. The results, while uneven and not always cohesive— these mighty individualists at times seem to be engaging in a three-way tug of war— are almost always exhilarating. There has never been a “Caravan” as turbulent as this one, or an Ellington blues as jagged and jarring as the title track. Money Jungle proves that an “all-star” jazz album can work beautifully, when the stars are in proper alignment. —Peter Keepnews


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