Duke Ellington

Piano in the Foreground

by Robert R. Calder

20 July 2004



The divulging of the contents of an extensive variety of archive tapes from Columbia dates, obviously of late by Thelonious Monk, gave some cause to hope there might have been more material from the sessions which produced Ellington’s 1961 piano trio LP (available for some time now in straight to-CD transfer). It never occurred to me that Piano in the Foreground, with its amazing variety of mood and style was set down in one day’s session. What has been added is from a couple of dates from 1957, only ever available on a French CBS 1957-62 collection of longtime unissued allsorts.

Only the bass player is different, little Jimmy Woode, many years now resident in Europe. Aaron Bell (who cannot be overpraised here) had taken over by ‘61. The drummer is the abidingly controversial Sam Woodyard, who seems never to have learned to imply accents—and could be an audible liability on band dates for all that he may well have given the band a valuable rhythmic foundation. It shouldn’t have been allowed to be so damned obvious as it was from time to time. Here, however, he has often a front line role, especially in the 1961 rhythmic interplay with Ellington’s at times fiercely struck piano.

cover art

Duke Ellington

Piano in the Foreground

US: 13 Jul 2004
UK: Available as import

The new titles comprise a “Lotus Blossom” with bass, two takes of “All the Things You Are”, and a suite of four Piano Improvisations. The first is yet another nice little Ellington blues, the second a piece of Harlem Stride Piano, the third begins with the bassist doing a little jig-walk over the drummer’s brushes, with Ellington developing from minimalist intrusions into a varied third part.

As for the cliche that this music demonstrates that Ellington could have had a sizeable career simply as a pianist, surely a sounder point is that the 1961 set was another of many challenges and expressions of genius, which happened to find resolution in one pretty nearly unrepeatable performance. It has a range and completeness miles beyond a piano trio set done for Capitol in the early 1950s, which also differs from the 1961 in having been recorded not all at one session but two or three short titles per date over several. The Capitol date’s like chips from the workshop bench.

Ellington was also at the time finding remarkable inspiration at the keyboard. Witness some contributions to the contemporary Piano in the Background which are stunning by any of his standards—especially as working within, with or against the band. Neither in the all-superstar Money Jungle set with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, or even This One’s for Blanton or other later recordings with or without Ray Brown (reissued on Original Jazz Classics or otherwise), was there this concentration, as well as the empathy with a bassist and a drummer who were his steady sidemen at the time.

The 1961 “I Can’t Get Started” has its rehearsal as a model performance of a standard in the 1957 “All the Things You Are”, and almost eclipses “Body and Soul” from the same 1961 date. This is above all piano trio music, the weight of phrasing and the perfection of timing, and the relaxation lift the performance above anything liable to be expected.

Everything is transmuted into pure Ellington, a remarkable appropriation of tradition by that individual talent and genius.

I don’t hear any of the “parody” of James P. Johnson some writers go on about. They don’t seem to appreciate the sheer happiness of Johnson’s music, and Elllington’s love of both it and Johnson. Ellington smiles with Johnson. He was never himself a stride pianist of great quality, though his first composition was a rag. There is film of him trying to play “Soda Fountain Rag” at one rehearsal and being disenchanted that his fingers wouldn’t oblige. He did record one Hell-for-leather stride performance around 1930, where he probably needed the band joining in to gee him up. Beside the proliferation of song tunes and band arrangements his output of piano solo compositions and performances was tiny. His gifts seem to have blossomed in a context involving more than piano, for instance in the duets inspired by Jimmy Blanton, the epoch-making bassist who tragically died of TB before the epoch he made began. There are some phenomenal piano duets with Billy Strayhorn (not just the few sides for RCA). Their “Tonk” has been featured by Dick Hyman. On one 1920s band recording Ellington attempted a solo stride piano passage which deliberately slowed down over its course—and it wound up sounding as if he was flagging rather than consciously trying to slow down. Like the saxophone playing of the short-lived but major composer-arranger Oliver Nelson, Ellington’s piano playing never attained the abandon of not needing to think. He could never stop listening-and-thinking, and thus his outstanding piano performances were when he had other people to listen to (Blanton, Bell-Woodyard, Strayhorn or a band) or had worked out how to time what he did.

Monk replied to a question about Ellington influencing him by suggesting that perhaps the influence went the other way. There was something in that. Both musicians were distillers of American idioms, each on his way to his own musical language. Why wouldn’t they have big things in common? Qua pianists, Monk was short on conventional technique but long on applied unorthodoxy, Ellington had solid piano lessons orthodox proficiency, Monk as a trio performer had speed if need be, but startling time and dynamics, related to his ensemble conceptions and later profitably orchestrated by Hall Overton for medium-sized band. Ellington orchestrated a lot for band, but those generalised characteristics of Monk were also his, after he couldn’t but have heard Monk. The distinctive Ellington style hardly attained sustained fluency outwith its incursions into band performances, really until near enough 1961, when he did begin to give trio recitals.

Ellington had a genius for learning from other people, a different thing from the polar opposites of plagiarist imitation or that sheer individuality Tommy Flanagan rightly equated with lack of capacity. Note his admiration and promotion of other distinctive stylists variously related to Monk: Randy Weston, and the then young then Dollar Brand (whose early African takes on Monk are delightful; Weston’s Africanisation has brought him closer in sound to Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim). Another of the school is England’s Stan Tracey, who at times sounded very Monkish and is as wonderful a performer of Monk as he turned out to be of Ellington in a duo where Roy Babbington’s bass propelled the heavyweight piano expression.

There are some huge detonations on Piano in the Foreground, “Cong-Go” or the violent percussion music into which “Summertime” develops, with the sensitive savagery of Woodyard’s drumming matched on the piano. There is always a harmonic sense like that of another Elllington mentor, Willie “The Lion” Smith, who is on one side of the spectrum just as Monk is on the other. “Fontainbleau Forest” has scarcely more pulse in the piano than is implied in, say, Ravel: Aaron Bell’s bowed bass supplies that.

The sheer simplicity of “It’s Bad to be Forgotten” is a breakthrough into the melodic creativity of Ellington the songwriter, Elllington as master of song-and-dance piano, and of a melodic line that might even have come from just hearing somebody speak the words of the title. Ellington master of the speaking piano, emulator of Mussorgsky and Bartok in musical transcription of speech. Ellington was also collossally inventive in new simple blues lines, the simplicity like “C-Jam Blues” into which “Blues for Jerry” resolves its harmonic prefatories. The company of new and unusual material kept performances of standards and older vehicles fresh. The second half of Ellington’s career was marked by reviews which asked when he was going to revive this or that tune, and involved research into whether something the reviewer hadn’t heard before was new or had been recorded much earlier.

This is the most unpredictable recording. Ellington was always doing something, and often doing something else. Mel Torme did make one classic statement (others would be worth collecting) of how unbelievably bad the Ellington band could be on an off-night! This is neither bad nor any kind of off-night, and as Ellington said of James P. Johnson, there never was another.

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