Duke Ellington's French Connection
Duke Ellington dashed off a truckload of music in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, much more than was viable for contemporary commercial release. Despite numerous CD releases drawn posthumously from his ‘stockpile’, the Ellington oeuvre seems near inexhaustible. Ellington French Touch, a new concert recording by the formidable Duke Orchestra of Paris led by Laurent Mignard, collects Ellington’s French-inspired compositions, which conveniently include a wealth of unheard music. The album brings into focus the triumphant late period of jazz’s greatest composer.
While much of Ellington’s unheard music waited patiently in his tape archive for CD release, other works have required a little more archeological work. The complete incidental music for a production of Alain-René Lesage’s Turcaret, transcribed by Laurent Mignard from a lo-fi collector’s tape, joins posthumous Ellington premiere recordings such as the Timon of Athens incidental music, the symphonic dance work Three Black Kings, and the musicals Saturday Laughter, Pousse-Café, and Queenie Pie.
Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn were commissioned to create incidental music for Turcaret in Paris in late 1960. According to Claude Carriere’s liner notes, the old pros created most of the score in three hours. The Turcaret overture is a delightful and thoroughly French waltz, spotlighting the woodwinds as well as Philippe Milanta’s dukish piano. The other short pieces are necessarily fragmentary but all hint at Ellington’s sadly under-exploited instinct for dramatic composition.
Another rare opportunity to demonstrate that capability came with the beautiful score for the disappointing Paris Blues (1961). Despite evocative monochrome location shooting and an appearance by Louis Armstrong, the film is largely oblivious to the realities of Parisian jazz culture. Until now, the score has been available only on a very abbreviated soundtrack album. French Touch features a never-issued cue (“Alternate Bed”) as well as extended versions of several other pieces, including the gorgeous “Autumnal Suite”.
In the spring of 1971, Ellington recorded a six-movement version of his Goutelas Suite, named for the Château de Goutelas in the south of France. The work was not released until 1976. On French Touch, Laurent Mignard presents three Goutelas outcasts. The bluesy “Goof” will be familiar to owners of the 1979 miscellany Up In Duke’s Workshop. The other movements are based on incomplete scores Mignard found at the Smithsonian Institution. The long and spooky “Gogo”, expanded by Mignard from Ellington’s sketches, shares motifs with “Amour, Amour” (aka “Too Kee”) from the Togo Brava Suite (also 1971). “Gigi” – presumably nothing to do with Leslie Caron – seems like a fine discovery, a mid-tempo Latin groove with intricate woodwind charts and an impassioned Paul Gonsalvesque solo from tenor saxophonist Fred Couderc.
Interspersed between these multi-movement works are classic French songs as arranged by Ellington and Strayhorn for the somewhat forgotten 1962 album Midnight in Paris, a few other compositions with a French connection including music from the Degas Suite (a never-used documentary score), and “That Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues”, which premiered at the 1966 Antibes/Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival.
This is the second album from the Duke Orchestra of Paris. The first, Duke Ellington Is Alive (2009), was a superb run-through of Ellington standards by a band committed to recreating the classic Ellington sound. Ellington French Touch is more adventurous and another necessary purchase for fans of the Duke.