Duke Ellington: Masterpieces by Ellington / Ellington Uptown / Festival Session

Duke Ellington
Masterpieces by Ellington / Ellington Uptown / Festival Session

If you know anyone who still harbours doubts about Duke Ellington’s pre-eminence as composer and band-leader then tie them to a chair and make them listen to the extended version of “Mood Indigo” that opens Masterpieces, the most essential of these three excellent reissues. If they remain heretics after hearing this full flowering of Ellington’s imagination, just leave them there. Not only are they not jazz fans, they probably don’t like music at all.

“Mood Indigo” is one of Ellington’s, and therefore the 20th century’s, finest musical moments. At one level a relatively simple, blues-inspired piece of wistfulness, it is, in all of its recorded forms, disarmingly beautiful. On this occasion, with over a quarter of an hour at its disposal (longer apparently than it took Ellington to compose the initial tune), it becomes magnificent. Around the recurrent, familiar melody a range of soloists step forward, each one bringing a particular gift to the table. And what soloists, what gifts. The result is a sustained exploration of sadness and stoicism, a study in melancholy and refined world-weariness. All the instruments get their say. Each adds a touch of poignancy, a hint of despair, a redemptive tear — whatever the logic of the moment requires. Not one second of this lengthy exposition seems redundant and, unlikely as it sounds, it still ends too soon.

What, in the early 1950s, enabled Ellington to produce such opulent triumphs was — apart from his genius and players of the calibre of Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, et al. — the arrival of the long playing record. This coincided with Ellington’s increasing interest in longer works and the beginning of his mature “tone-poem” period. Taking advantage of the new format, Ellington managed to offer expanded interpretations of his “standards”, each coated in new glory, while introducing the public to his new, more “conceptual” work. The original Masterpieces album contained three favourites (“Mood Indigo”, “Solitude”, and “Sophisticated Lady”) plus one more recent composition (“The Tattooed Bride”). This reissue adds three short pieces from the same era but its essence is the original quartet. For newcomers to Ellington’s “post-A Train” period this is as good a place to start as any.

If you can get past “Mood Indigo” (and it took me a while), the ensuing cuts are almost as sublime. “Sophisticated Lady” is very subdued and er … sophisticated. Heavily atmospheric, it is dominated by Yvonne Lanauze’s elegant, purring contralto. She sings on “Mood Indigo”, too, and on both tunes makes you wonder why she is just about the least celebrated of Ellington’s vocalists. Another advantage of the elongated take is that you get more of Ellington as pianist than is usually the case. His solo, unsurprisingly, is as poised and polished as a proper reading of the tune demands. His contribution to “Solitude” is equally telling, second only to the interplay between the various wind instruments as the performance’s high-spot.

“The Tattooed Bride” is more classical in inspiration, with a complex musical narration at its heart. Less immediately seductive than the other three, it nonetheless holds its own with them, largely by dint of the clarity of conception and the skills of the orchestra. As a marker of the direction in which Ellington was taking his music, it is an apt inclusion. However, it cannot in all honesty compete with the sheer loveliness and historic aura of its immediate musical surroundings. Of the newly added numbers, the jaunty “Rock-Skippin’ at the Bluenote” is the pick, although by that time such a surfeit of aural riches has been delivered that all but the most hardened musical trencherman will be sated to the point of near-exhaustion.

Ellington Uptown, is similar in scope, concept, and overall distinction. Initially released around the same period, this CD brings together all the tracks that have ever appeared under this title’s various reincarnations. So, as with Masterpieces, you get Ellington repertoire standards (“The Mooche”, “Take the A Train”, and “Perdido”) alongside the “symphonic” post-war pieces. These include the ambitious “Liberian Suite” and the generally under-acclaimed, but recently championed, “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”. More robustly “big band” than the Masterpieces album, Uptown is equally hard to fault. Some may even prefer this set, as it is both more uptempo and archetypically demonstrative of Ellington’s trademark pictorialism. If Masterpieces is primarily about the direct exploration of various states of mind, then Uptown is more about the representation of geographical spaces and the emotions associated with them. Ellington’s landscapes are infused with history and race-consciousness — explicitly so in the “Liberian Suite” — but no less significantly in the Harlem-based pieces.

“Take the A Train” (actually penned by Billy Strayhorn, of course) is the best known of these, and while this may not be the definitive version it is as memorable as any other. Ellington singled it out for mention in his autobiography, with particular praise for Betty Roche’s be-bop inflected hipster vocals. The Cotton Club chestnut “The Mooche” is my favourite track, swaggering and sleazy and full of all those libidinous growls and plunger brass effects, but “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” is perhaps the revelation here. A concert piece certainly, and one with classical ambitions, it is nevertheless a bluesy, brassy, jazz extravaganza, as rich and suggestive as any of Modernism’s major encounters with the city. Mondrian and Dos Passos would both have been proud to create such a metropolitan canvas. Historically astute, too, it creates a disquieting musical exchange between North and South at one point and seems throughout to be both visualising and narrating the story of a rural to urban, specifically African-American, journey. A soundtrack that needs no accompanying documentary film.

By 1959 and Festival Session, Ellington was actually composing for Hollywood. He was also very firmly back in the public eye as a stage performer. Incredible as it seems, given the depth and daring of the music, Ellington’s light in the early ’50s was a little overshadowed by the “new” musicians of be-bop and cool. It took a series of triumphant festival appearances to remind the jazz world how much it needed him. This album takes its title from those triumphs. Unpredictably, it is less concerned with familiar crowd pleasers and far more concerned to show the dynamics of Ellington’s then current band.

“Perdido” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” make an appearance but the centrepieces of this set are the more experimental “enhanced” duets, “Duael Fuel” and “Idiom 59”. The former highlights the two drummers Sam Woodyard and Jimmy Johnson, the latter the clarinettists Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope. These are specialist works and are unlikely to find as ready an audience as Masterpieces or Uptown. Stick with them, though, both for the bravura playing and the sense of active creation that both sequences convey. If they prove too specialised in their appeal then content yourself with the cinematic sweep of the ensemble work-outs or simply the unalloyed grace of Paul Gonsalves’s sax solo (on “Copout Extension”). As a final fall-back, there is always the ever-reliable Harry Carney (exquisite baritone sax on “VIP Boogie”). Parts of this album were included on the infamous “Thirdstream” collection at the time, to the dismay both of Modernists and die-hard Ellingtonians. True, they didn’t really fit, but the recognition that Ellington was stretching the parameters of jazz as significantly as were the more cerebral likes of George Russell and Gunther Schuller was not misguided.

Taken together, these CDs will give you a perfect insight into the post-war, “Mature” phase of the Ellington orchestra. A basic “song-book” unmatched anywhere in popular music (or classical, for that matter), musicians who seem, literally at times, to make their instruments talk, and a coordinating intelligence whose ambitions were as great as his talent. Old and new, the tested and the provisional, safety and risk-taking, a whole series of supposed opposites meet here and co-exist happily. They do so because Ellington wanted them to and had the confidence and ability to make his desires reality.

Let us return finally to “Mood Indigo”. Just after the vocal section, trumpet and trombone engage in a display of “growl” pyrotechnics that are deeply haunting and that deploy an impossibly gentle touch. They never lapse into mere trickery. For me, it sums up Ellington’s aesthetic — clever, sometimes playfully, sometimes wickedly so, but always purposeful. That is, I think, the aspect of Ellingtonia that is so well represented on these albums. The music has an uncanny sense of direction, of where things belong and to what end they are serving. Whether it is revisiting the older songs to see if they have any more magic to impart, or whether it is venturing into new uncharted areas, there is always this air of certainty, of a pre-arranged and achievable goal. Perhaps that is what troubles some people about Ellington. Jazz is surely about improvisation, not certainty. Well, I can guarantee you, there is more genuine improvisation on these discs than in the whole ECM catalogue, but it is shaped, coaxed, given form. By the musicians certainly, but above all by the One and Only Duke Ellington.

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists