Duke Ellington: Piano in the Background

Robert R. Calder

Duke Ellington

Piano in the Background

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2004-07-13
UK Release Date: Available as import

The core of this CD was issued as a vinyl LP named in parallel with Elington's piano trio masterpiece Piano in the Foreground. Ellington liked verbal cleverness, even when it was pointless and not really witty. The most suave bad jokes in history.

He might have elaborated a reference to his here playing a lot of decidedly foreground piano -- as one of the featured soloists on band titles. He might have brought back up his old quasi self-effacing reference to himself as "the piano player with the band", since "piano" has been used to mean "pianist". Perhaps here a neglected member of the ensemble was being given a rare chance to solo a lot?

Equally, and regardless of how many solo slots he has -- it has to be emphasised that Ellington's playing in ensemble and accompaniment here is at a level of musical attainment scarcely surpassed for creative ingenuity and playing skill. Compositional and arranging duties were here more than elsewhere -- and very plainly -- in hands other than those of Ellington or his musical alter ego Billy Strayhorn. But let's leave background questions in the background!

There are two arrangements by the sometime Stan Kenton alumnus Bill Mathieu, and more by the ever estimable now very venerable Gerald Wilson, who sits in with the trumpet section on some titles. One of Wilson's most important jobs here was grafting together into one composition two arrangements of Juan Tizol's "Perdido".

What's generally recognised as the brassiest music in the entire fifty-year Ellington discography dates from the middle to late 1940s, when for a lot of complex reasons big band jazz became more trumpet-ridden. Dizzy Gillespie's big band was only some of it; virtuoso and high-power brass technique was becoming commoner, associated with Sy Oliver's arrangements for Jimmy Lunceford's band, Gerald Wilson's finishing school and an absolute paragon of precision. Kenton's musical character tended toward the brassy; his "Intermission Riff" was characteristic but actually came from Lunceford (Kenton absolutely had to change the title, originally "Yard Dog Mazurka" -- sic!). Woody Herman's "Caldonia" had a fantastic passage for four trumpets arranged by Ralph Burns, which so intrigued Stravinsky he transcribed it, thinking there were rather five than four!

Ellington didn't sell out to fashion; he relished the new compositional and performing challenges of running a band which didn't sound untrendy.

His band had reached its apogee in 1939-42. In the year 2000 the late John Lewis descibed that band's music as the foundation of subsequent jazz, meaning the 21st Century, too. From that supreme band Ellington had lost key musicians, which is also to say colours from his palette: Barney Bigard left, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams. Jimmy Blanton died, and the trombone virtuoso Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton died suddenly in 1946. The brassier Ellington was a development in one direction -- which inspired the very successful English Echoes of Ellington big band venture in the 1990s; the individual performers found in late 1940s Ellington an excellent fit for their combination of personal playing styles.

Fifteen or less years later it underpinned the music here, the stuff initially issued on vinyl supplemented with the rest of the recorded batch from which it was selected, and some odds and ends Columbia taped and filed away and their French subsidiary later issued under titles like Ellington 1957-63.

'Trumpet No End" was a highlight of brassy Ellington, an extension of band style as much as repertoire, commissioned from Mary Lou Williams, who was deeply involved in the new music of the time. Jazz is, among other things, a translator's art, and no doubt Ellington fed off his band's playing other arrangers' music -- he used Benny Carter in the 1920s. It could be interesting to check through the other arrangers over the years. I'd guess that they not only added their own works to the Ellington library, they left behind a few little, well, darlings too.

Ellington's own roaring train composition "Happy-go-Lucky Local" dates from the brassy later 1940s and was fired up here again fifteen years later; I imagine the normally lyrical altoist Russell Procope found it fun to blare brazenly as the locomotive horn. You oughta and gotta try to enjoy your work! Exuberance and excitement are the key, youthful thrilling in train sound and rhythm.

The late '40s song "What am I Here For?" has become much better known since Ellington raised the question again (but without words) here -- and with a piano introduction on which he does interesting things with time. The five notes to which his original pop-song's title words were sung encourage massy orchestration, a high-power reed section with plunger trombone, and Paul Gonsalves' tenor saxophone still more potent for his harmonic sophistication.

Over the years the 1930-ish theme of "Rockin' in Rhythm" put on weight, actually muscle. The old bit became the second section of a two-part suite, following a piano trio feature known otherwise as "Kinda Dukish". The orchestral entry on this date is like an avalanche. Joe Nanton's heir here, Quentin Jackson, Steve Turre's revered teacher, becomes quite sanctified, halleluia-wawa-ing away on a composition which always bespoke abandon. Lunceford shouldn't be forgotten, or confused with the singing and other stuff his band could also do. He and his arranger Sy Oliver pioneered the ascent of the trumpet to fearsome heights above puissant ensembles. Ellington added further fire, and ultimately Cat Anderson as high-note man was compared even with the angels (like the Kenton screamer Maynard Ferguson, Anderson was a conventional soloist of prodigious creativity).

"Perdido" opens with a boppish unison apparently coined for a Clark Terry/ Jimmy Hamilton date. It brings to mind Charlie Parker's "Anthropology". The last major Ellington eccentric was the drummer Sam Woodyard, and here's even more evidence that he could be the most powerful drummer of them all. The arrangement manifests mastery of disguise in relation to the original theme. Ellington's piano contribution is a second aspect of the arrangement, startlingly inventive during a surprisingly long wait before the first soloist comes in.

Jimmy Hamilton was a controversial apppointee to the Ellington clarinet chair because, paradoxically, so orthodox a virtuoso player. His dizzying high-register contribution should underline how modern(ist) a player he always was. There is a trumpet chase, (another 1940s entrant) Ray Nance bops and sells salt peanuts; there's a four-trombone ensemble, Paul Gonsalves on a tenor solo which becomes diminuendo, Ellington's piano in contrast with the full (bigger than ever) band, a rare occasion of Harry Carney's baritone positively roaring, and an ending with a few nods to what Count Basie was doing at the time. It's a tremendous outpouring, affirmative to the point of profligacy, and perfectly in keeping with the presiding spirit of the issued recording.

It was fun making a loud noisem, which was also nice. The ultimate relish may have been expressed in the nessun dorma, I mean the nobody's gonna fall asleep version of "Lullaby of Birdland". The second "bonus alternate" take of this item happily reminds of the other one issued here as merely "bonus" and not on the initial issue. It opens with Ellington some way from the cool polish of the then current George Shearing quintet, in a piano feature followed by orchestration and one of Paul Gonsalves' best solos, on a theme half-way between the nominal one and Dvorak's "Humoresque". Ray Nance takes a trumpet solo parodying and outdoing Harry "Sweets" Edison just as the whole track tackles Shearing. The fun extends into an ensemble further harmonised, brilliantly, from Jimmy Hamilton on high to Harry Carney at the bottom of his baritone. The premiere here of Gerald Wilson's "The Wailer" has another long Ellington piano opening, and more Gonsalves, neither sounding that strongly Ellingtonian. But then there's Billy Strayhorn's (yet another) Johnny Hodges feature, called with perfect accuracy "Dreamy Sort of Thing". With another four elderly Ellington chestnuts, a previously unissued imprecise but lively "Harlem Air Shaft" included, this is a standard case of the Ellington mixture as still probably not quite as ever before. There's a lot here!

The piano used is reported as of the 91-key variety. The report sounds like a characteristic bit of Ellington wit. Sometimes there seems no point to it, which cannot be said about music like this.

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