The title’s a bit of tease, really. These aren’t hitherto undiscovered Ellington recordings nor are they a side of the great composer that we weren’t supposed to know about, in either tabloid or musically revelatory senses. What this very impressive project is all about is, overtly, the rescuing of a 1958 libretto and music to a show that never got produced. It has historical value as that and does add something to our knowledge of Ellington. However, this should really be judged as a contemporary recording and enjoyed for the quality of performance and the caliber of the players involved, all of whom have obviously relished the opportunity to get their hands on hitherto unheard Ellington tunes.
Almost unheard. The standout lyric “They Say” was actually thought good enough to be used at Ellington’s memorial service, where the actor Brock Peters delivered the song’s message of departure, reconciliation, and the afterlife. It is the finest of what are a series of well-crafted words, all unapologetically located in a lost and more articulate Broadway tradition. Each comes from the pen of Herb Martin, who happily is still around to witness this new interest in his work. Other than “They Say”, most of the material remained in rough-demo form and exists nowhere with finished Ellington orchestration.
So, what we have are a series of interpretations rather than recreations. Some are taken as songs, some are instrumentals. You will get little sense of plot or running order of the original musical (Saturday Laughter—from South African Peter Abrahams’ novel) nor how Ellington may have meant the music to sound. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is because what is presented to the listener are a series of polished and inventive pieces, each complete in its own right.
Some of the songs will seem a little showbizzy and dated to non-theatrical types. Ironically they are the ones that probably most closely adhere to what the show would have actually sounded like. These tend to be the upbeat numbers (such as the terrifyingly breezy opener “You Are Beautiful”) and, to be truthful, this album works best in ballad or melancholy mode. Thankfully, that is the overwhelming majority of the time it takes for the team of gifted musicians to produce fourteen tracks (using 12 of the 22 original tunes.)
“Ellingtonia” tends to imply big bands. The songs here are all given small group treatments, using different but overlapping sets of musicians and arrangers. The singers are Freddy Cole, Jeffery Smith, Judi Silvano, Karen Oberlin, and Ian Shaw. All do the job required of them but Cole (“They Say”) and Judi Silvano (“I Am Lonely”) walk off with the honours. The players are in such good shape it is a shame to pick out any—but saxophonists do particularly well, with Joe Lovano (“Only Yesterday”) and Bob Kindred (“This Man”) as outstanding. Joe Beck on guitar and Joe Locke on vibes are possibly even more winning and bring a cool, after-dinner vibe to the chic “This Man” and even the beefy “Big White Mountain”. Joe Beck is also the pick of a distinguished group of arrangers. As a poignant extra Grover Washington Jr. made his last recording on this date and there is a special sadness to his delicate intro to, strangely but inevitably, “They Say”.
There is a more pervasive solemnity, allied to a great amount of downbeat lyricism, in most of the best tunes. Even the hints of bossa nova (“This Man”) or the very modern-sounding Latin bop of “New Shoes” (the pick of the quicker numbers) have a nocturnal, lugubrious edge to them. Many of the lyrics encourage this and I would like to know if this prevalent “darkness” had anything to with the play’s themes (it was set in 1950s’ Capetown, after all). Loneliness and alienation, with beauty and love their only counter, do seem to emerge from both the words and music as a core concern.
Yet, that may not interest most lovers of good jazz, who know that the simple privilege of hearing the likes of Locke, Lovano, and Beck in full flight is profundity enough. Even if the very idea of a jazz musical makes some wince, those three are worth the imagined pain. Anyway, once you get with the conventions of the song structures, the singing is every bit as evocative as the subtle accompaniments. If you want evocative, Freddy Cole can conjure up a whole history of American song in one lazy, half-spoken phrase.
It turns out that the show is currently being revived, re-titled and now set in the Harlem of the twenties. It is to be called “Renaissance Man” and may well prove popular, given current interest in the era that saw the first flowering of Ellington’s genius. Whatever the score’s eventual fate, this time around,Secret Ellington is a considerable achievement, artistically and on its own terms. What might have proved to be simply a worthy, archival after-note is, in fact, one of the year’s more satisfying jazz outings.