[6 November 2011]
In a little over forty days, from the middle of August to the end of September of 1962, Duke Ellington recorded three small group records that stand as his most forceful statements in the medium: Money Jungle, a trio session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach and the most bare-and-battered-bones music of Ellington’s career; Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, a late-career summit of two greats who each played a key role in developing the grammar of jazz; and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, which catches the soloist in the midst of one of his most productive periods, when he was consistently swirling jazz’s past and future into what often feels like a single, tortuous line. This new release from Impulse/Universal binds the Hawkins and Coltrane records onto one disc and, although you miss the rough sparseness of Money Jungle, the conversation these two sessions create when played back to back is illuminating.
Working with Ellington provides Hawkins, on a song-by-song basis, a chance to fuse the two great segments of his career—his work as the innovator of the swing solo and as the elder statesman of bop. Using a collection of some of Ellington’s most trusted sidemen, including Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Ray Nance, Hawkins shines on some of Duke’s signature compositions. “Mood Indigo”, for instance, is recast as a more modestly contemplative piece without losing any of its majesty. In fact, this later performance bears the bleary, weary introspection of a thousand nights on the road more acutely than any of the earlier big band versions. It’s also an ideal example of how delicately Hawkins can handle a ballad. “Limbo Jazz” is a loose-limbed riff that plays like a more approachable, less brittle version of the small group work of Money Jungle, and it works as an exuberant celebration that blends the borders between jazz and early Atlantic R&B—especially if you play it loud enough to hear the non sequitur voices vamping in the background.
John Coltrane and Duke Ellington finds Coltrane’s playing lodged in a middle position, between the roiling yet accessible hard bop of records like Blue Train (1957) and Giant Steps (1960) and the confrontational, tonal acrobatics of A Love Supreme (1965) and Ascension (1966).
On this record, you get the sense that he is running up against the edges of his own ideas, getting ready to strike through the mask, dropping sheets of sound that are often tangled and opaque but always reaching, searching—and always worth following. When heard against the warmth and wisdom of Hawkins’s playing, however, Coltrane can sound a bit prickly, and predictably enough Coltrane’s sessions with Ellington are more overtly adventurous. For one thing, he brings more of his own people—Elvin Bishop occasionally sits in on drums and Jimmy Garrison takes a turn on bass—and for another, he seems to take greater liberties with the Ellington songbook. Coltrane’s version of “In a Sentimental Mood”, for instance, is deliberately drained of sentimentality, finding new emotional registers for a familiar standard; in its cooler, more languid corners, you can hear Lester Young looking over his shoulder. “Take the Coltrane”, on the other hand, zeros in on a motif from the Ellington orchestra most prominent song and explodes it into a blues-based flurry of runs and ripples. Where the appropriately-titled Meets Coleman Hawkins represents an encounter between two coeval giants, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane highlights the rough points of contact between two highly individuated sensibilities. Neither is dissolved into the other but the distinctions remain, and the tensions they produce are the magic of the album.
If you already have the material, this package might not appeal. But even a passing interest in any of these principal figures, or in the broad range of American music, make this an essential selection. As a call-and-response combo, this package offers an ideal place to retrain your sense of Ellington’s great gifts: his nuanced visions of color and tone, his preternatural understanding of sonic texture, and—especially in this context—his formidable abilities as a piano player. Although each record highlights the innovations and distinct character of its marquee soloists, we’re forced to admit that, in the end, this is Ellington’s world and, as listeners and players alike, we’ve been living in it all along.