Duke Ellington and Paris Part 2: An Interview With Laurent Mignard

In this second part of his 'Duke and Paris' series, Matthew Asprey looks into what Laurent Mignard means, when he says, "Our record is called Duke Ellington Is Alive because I'm really sure that Duke's mood is still with us."

Editor's Note: Read "Duke Ellington and Paris Part 1: Busy Winters"

Paris still loves Duke Ellington à la folie.

In March 2011 I visited the Alhambra Theatre near the Place de la République. Laurent Mignard's Duke Orchestra was to perform that evening. A piano tuner was working onstage. Mignard was hunched over a mixing desk in the empty theatre's gallery, running through a series of film clips with Marilor, the band's video artist. I looked over Mignard's shoulder at Duke announcing a "coffee break", laughing with Louis Armstrong back stage, defining by deflection "my people", discussing Joan Miró and the charms of Cannes. "I have nothing against gambling," said Duke, "particularly if you win."

Laurent Mignard took a break from preparations to have a talk with me about his work.

How did you start the Duke Orchestra?

Laurent Mignard: The band started in 2003 in Paris with the jazz festival in Saint-Germain-des-Près. The director of the festival wanted us to recreate Duke's Sacred Concert of 1969 in Saint-Sulpice Church (the Second Sacred Concert). That's how the orchestra started. The show was so great that we could not stop there. We had to continue.

How have you managed to keep the orchestra together? How often do you play each year?

We play about fifteen concerts a year. We don't have much subsidy. What keeps the orchestra together is definitely the music of Duke. The musicians come to play and know that on the music sheets they have the most beautiful music there is. So it's not really myself. It's Duke's music that keeps us together.

The repertoire of the orchestra does not focus so much on the early music. Your band plays the later works as well.

It's very difficult to have an aesthetic which lasts from 1929 to 1974. It's a very large period. We think Duke Ellington's orchestra definitely changed at the beginning of the Blanton-Webster period. The modern Ellington starts in 1939-40. That's our point of beginning. It doesn't mean that what is before isn't important, it just means for me that what is before is another music.

Why do you think he had that affection for Paris? He visited many times in the '50s and '60s.

Duke Ellington was really fond of France and Paris. He enjoyed the joie de vivre. He enjoyed people's views about good taste. Duke liked to speak French words in his language because it's elegant. Duke's father was a butler, he worked at the White House. Duke was not born in the deep south of the United States. He wanted to have this posture all his life and French helped him to do it. And I must say that the French people were completely fond of his work. Each time he came he had a very great welcoming.

Do you want to tell me about this evening's performance?

Paris is full of fans and connoisseurs of Duke Ellington’s music. With journalists, producers, musicians, listeners … we created La Maison du Duke (Duke’s Place in Paris) which is involved in education, performances, collections and communication. It's more active in education, concerts, trying to create from Duke Ellington's music.

Tonight is a special night for us because I wanted to invite Duke himself. Our record is called Duke Ellington is Alive because I'm really sure that Duke's mood is still with us. The news is still very important these days because many people are lost, and the Duke always wanted to elevate. Tonight we play a panorama of Duke Ellington's music. He will be staged by a creation with video. And with the video we will propose he talk to the audience, accompany the orchestra, rehearse the orchestra. You will really have the impression he will be there.

And you have a premiere?

From the beginning of this year we've tried at each concert to play a tune that Duke didn't record or even play in concert. We will play tonight a tune called "Go-Go", an assembly of "Go-Go 1" and "Go-Go 2", which should have been in the Goutelas Suite. I found this manuscript at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. I said "I've never heard of that piece." I brought this music to Paris. For this concert we tried to finish the work, a bit like Süssmayr who had to finish the Requiem. Of course, I'm not Süssmayr. But it was very interesting to see what could we do with only a few music sheets. What is the tempo? I didn't know. What is the groove? Where are the soloists? What could have been Duke Ellington's piano part? And we all worked together in a workshop to figure what this tune could have been. And we play it tonight.

And of course the concert will be recorded. All these unreleased pieces will be on the recording we produce, and it will be available at end of the year or beginning of next year.

It's a matter of contribution. We are rich with Duke Ellington's music but we also know that we have to contribute to bring his music into the light. We have to educate young people and say to the world that Duke is universal. He's not only American or Canadian or French. We do our job, the best we can, and we try not to be too much involved in the history but to project his music into the present and the future.

What about the Alhambra? Duke played here in the '50s.

Duke played one block from here at the old Alhambra, the great French cabaret, in 1958. We have a recording. The place has been transformed into a parking station. This is the new Alhambra. For us it's not just a trick because Ellington came to the Alhambra more than 50 years ago. It makes sense. It is the only place I wanted to do this: nice room, 600 seats, very warm, and the stage is close to the seats. Very good sound. It's great to play a show here.

Did he play at L'Alhambra again after 1958? He did a lot of concerts at the Olympia.

Yes, l'Olympia, Salle Pleyel, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées... He did many concerts. But he loved L'Alhambra. Because it was a cabaret. And cabarets reminded him of the Cotton Club!

Laurent Mignard

The Gig

That night's gig at the new L'Alhambra was a sell-out.

The Duke Orchestra began with the traditional "Take the 'A' Train" behind a closed curtain. Then Mignard led the band into the rewarding nooks of the immense Ellington oeuvre. "Frustration", which had been performed at the 1958 Alhambra concert, featured Fred Couderc on baritone sax in the Harry Carney tradition. Then a film of Duke recording "Rondolet" (1967) was projected behind the orchestra. Duke counted in Mignard's band, false start included. Didier Desbois soloed à la Johnny Hodges. The live orchestra accompanied more rehearsal footage, this time of "The Old Circus Train Turnaround Blues" from the Juan les Pin-Antibes Jazz Festival of 1966. Two terrific singers, Stephy Haik and Sylvia Howard, were welcomed onstage in turn.

The summit of the concert was Ad Lib on Nippon. This long piece in distinct sections was originally a feature for Duke's piano and Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet. Philippe Milanta opened the work in its piano trio setting while images of Japan projected on the screen. In the later sections Aurélie Tropez ably took the Jimmy Hamilton role. Tropez is a superb clarinet player. She later performed another part of the Far East Suite, "Bluebird of Delhi", which quotes a bird call heard outside Strayhorn's window while the band was on tour for the US State Department in 1963.

"Go-Go", the rescued movement from the Goutelas Suite, impressed me as a fully realised Ellington work. Passages slightly resembled 'Amour, Amour' from the Togo Brava Suite of 1971.

Duke's Thing

Ellington's music is not just endlessly rearrangeable standard melodies like "Sophisticated Lady" or "Solitude" or "Isfahan". Pieces like "East St Louis Toodle-Oo" (1926), "The Work Song" from Black, Brown and Beige (1943), and "The Little Purple Flower" (1967) are difficult to imagine divorced from Ellington's arrangements and orchestrations. The melodies, as lovely as they may be, are not the main attraction. Do we listen to Debussy just for the pretty tunes?

Ellington had as subtle a palate of tone colour as Bernard Herrmann or Brian Wilson. Actually, Ellington went far deeper into idiosyncratic timbre by scoring for specific players. A Bernard Herrmann score will sound pretty much the same whether played by the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra or the Royal Scottish National Orchestra or the London Philharmonic because the dynamics and effects are subtly marked on the manuscripts. In contrast, Ellington's compositional process tended towards workshopping sketches in rehearsal with his long-serving musicians. He used recordings as the fixed transcription of his compositional art. The original scores, in whatever condition they can be found, probably won't provide an instant key to Ellington's orchestral colours.

Laurent Mignard has done something remarkable. He has nailed Ellington's 1960s sound by recreating the intricate textures of the individual sections of the band. And while the cats do not attempt to reproduce solos note-for-note, the improvisations accurately reproduce the timbres and style of the most distinctive Ellingtonians: François Biensan growls like Cootie Williams, Aurélie Tropez plays flitting blues like Jimmy Hamilton, Philippe Milanta recreates the elegant flourishes of Ellington's piano, Richard Blanchet blasts like Cat Anderson, and Didier Desbois wails prettily like Johnny Hodges.

There are other Ellington repertory bands, but Mignard's Duke Orchestra is distinct for emphasising the importance of texture and timbre in Duke's compositions. It's something of an archaeological project: the band attempts to recreate these elements, to treat them as seriously as playing the melody correctly. Perhaps this approach goes against the traditional jazz mentality, its celebration of the uniqueness of each player's voice. It could amount to no more than impersonation. But the players in the Duke Orchestra are so damned good they transcend these supposed limitations.

A soloist confronting the Ellington canon might be likened to an actor cast in A Streetcar Named Desire. The actor cannot ignore the legacy of Marlon Brando as the epitome of Stanley Kowalski. He can either do something aggressively different or else deem Brando's Kowalski persona unavoidable, as necessary to the character as Tennessee Williams' words, and work within that template.

There is no automatic reason why fidelity to an established template has to mean a curtailing of creative vitality. In his recent New Yorker consideration of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and their wholesale adoption of the James Brown sound, Sasha Frere-Jones grudgingly concluded that "once the original authors are absent, and we agree that their ideas are perfect as is, there seems little reason to monkey with them."

I saw the Mingus Big Band in 2009 -- a badly engineered gig at the Sydney Opera House -- and for all its virtuosity, the performance seemed to have little to do with Charles Mingus. Yes, the band played Mingus compositions, but the gig was more of a crowd-pleasing cutting contest with trombone gimmicks than an exploration of Mingus the composer.

So let's just say Laurent Mignard's is one approach among many to playing canonical big band jazz. Perhaps this approach is more likely to happen in Europe, where improvisation in jazz is usually more tightly bound within a compositional context. Beyond listening to recordings, the Duke Orchestra of Paris is the closest we can get to hearing what Ellington's great band sounded like in live concert. With such wonderful musicians, Mignard has found the point where fidelity tips into transcendence.

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