Duke Ellington: Piano in the Foreground

Robert R. Calder

Duke Ellington

Piano in the Foreground

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

The divulging of the contents of an extensive variety of archive tapes from Columbia dates, obviously of late by Thelonious Monk, gave some cause to hope there might have been more material from the sessions which produced Ellington's 1961 piano trio LP (available for some time now in straight to-CD transfer). It never occurred to me that Piano in the Foreground, with its amazing variety of mood and style was set down in one day's session. What has been added is from a couple of dates from 1957, only ever available on a French CBS 1957-62 collection of longtime unissued allsorts.

Only the bass player is different, little Jimmy Woode, many years now resident in Europe. Aaron Bell (who cannot be overpraised here) had taken over by '61. The drummer is the abidingly controversial Sam Woodyard, who seems never to have learned to imply accents -- and could be an audible liability on band dates for all that he may well have given the band a valuable rhythmic foundation. It shouldn't have been allowed to be so damned obvious as it was from time to time. Here, however, he has often a front line role, especially in the 1961 rhythmic interplay with Ellington's at times fiercely struck piano.

The new titles comprise a "Lotus Blossom" with bass, two takes of "All the Things You Are", and a suite of four Piano Improvisations. The first is yet another nice little Ellington blues, the second a piece of Harlem Stride Piano, the third begins with the bassist doing a little jig-walk over the drummer's brushes, with Ellington developing from minimalist intrusions into a varied third part.

As for the cliche that this music demonstrates that Ellington could have had a sizeable career simply as a pianist, surely a sounder point is that the 1961 set was another of many challenges and expressions of genius, which happened to find resolution in one pretty nearly unrepeatable performance. It has a range and completeness miles beyond a piano trio set done for Capitol in the early 1950s, which also differs from the 1961 in having been recorded not all at one session but two or three short titles per date over several. The Capitol date's like chips from the workshop bench.

Ellington was also at the time finding remarkable inspiration at the keyboard. Witness some contributions to the contemporary Piano in the Background which are stunning by any of his standards -- especially as working within, with or against the band. Neither in the all-superstar Money Jungle set with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, or even This One's for Blanton or other later recordings with or without Ray Brown (reissued on Original Jazz Classics or otherwise), was there this concentration, as well as the empathy with a bassist and a drummer who were his steady sidemen at the time.

The 1961 "I Can't Get Started" has its rehearsal as a model performance of a standard in the 1957 "All the Things You Are", and almost eclipses "Body and Soul" from the same 1961 date. This is above all piano trio music, the weight of phrasing and the perfection of timing, and the relaxation lift the performance above anything liable to be expected.

Everything is transmuted into pure Ellington, a remarkable appropriation of tradition by that individual talent and genius.

I don't hear any of the "parody" of James P. Johnson some writers go on about. They don't seem to appreciate the sheer happiness of Johnson's music, and Elllington's love of both it and Johnson. Ellington smiles with Johnson. He was never himself a stride pianist of great quality, though his first composition was a rag. There is film of him trying to play "Soda Fountain Rag" at one rehearsal and being disenchanted that his fingers wouldn't oblige. He did record one Hell-for-leather stride performance around 1930, where he probably needed the band joining in to gee him up. Beside the proliferation of song tunes and band arrangements his output of piano solo compositions and performances was tiny. His gifts seem to have blossomed in a context involving more than piano, for instance in the duets inspired by Jimmy Blanton, the epoch-making bassist who tragically died of TB before the epoch he made began. There are some phenomenal piano duets with Billy Strayhorn (not just the few sides for RCA). Their "Tonk" has been featured by Dick Hyman. On one 1920s band recording Ellington attempted a solo stride piano passage which deliberately slowed down over its course -- and it wound up sounding as if he was flagging rather than consciously trying to slow down. Like the saxophone playing of the short-lived but major composer-arranger Oliver Nelson, Ellington's piano playing never attained the abandon of not needing to think. He could never stop listening-and-thinking, and thus his outstanding piano performances were when he had other people to listen to (Blanton, Bell-Woodyard, Strayhorn or a band) or had worked out how to time what he did.

Monk replied to a question about Ellington influencing him by suggesting that perhaps the influence went the other way. There was something in that. Both musicians were distillers of American idioms, each on his way to his own musical language. Why wouldn't they have big things in common? Qua pianists, Monk was short on conventional technique but long on applied unorthodoxy, Ellington had solid piano lessons orthodox proficiency, Monk as a trio performer had speed if need be, but startling time and dynamics, related to his ensemble conceptions and later profitably orchestrated by Hall Overton for medium-sized band. Ellington orchestrated a lot for band, but those generalised characteristics of Monk were also his, after he couldn't but have heard Monk. The distinctive Ellington style hardly attained sustained fluency outwith its incursions into band performances, really until near enough 1961, when he did begin to give trio recitals.

Ellington had a genius for learning from other people, a different thing from the polar opposites of plagiarist imitation or that sheer individuality Tommy Flanagan rightly equated with lack of capacity. Note his admiration and promotion of other distinctive stylists variously related to Monk: Randy Weston, and the then young then Dollar Brand (whose early African takes on Monk are delightful; Weston's Africanisation has brought him closer in sound to Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim). Another of the school is England's Stan Tracey, who at times sounded very Monkish and is as wonderful a performer of Monk as he turned out to be of Ellington in a duo where Roy Babbington's bass propelled the heavyweight piano expression.

There are some huge detonations on Piano in the Foreground, "Cong-Go" or the violent percussion music into which "Summertime" develops, with the sensitive savagery of Woodyard's drumming matched on the piano. There is always a harmonic sense like that of another Elllington mentor, Willie "The Lion" Smith, who is on one side of the spectrum just as Monk is on the other. "Fontainbleau Forest" has scarcely more pulse in the piano than is implied in, say, Ravel: Aaron Bell's bowed bass supplies that.

The sheer simplicity of "It's Bad to be Forgotten" is a breakthrough into the melodic creativity of Ellington the songwriter, Elllington as master of song-and-dance piano, and of a melodic line that might even have come from just hearing somebody speak the words of the title. Ellington master of the speaking piano, emulator of Mussorgsky and Bartok in musical transcription of speech. Ellington was also collossally inventive in new simple blues lines, the simplicity like "C-Jam Blues" into which "Blues for Jerry" resolves its harmonic prefatories. The company of new and unusual material kept performances of standards and older vehicles fresh. The second half of Ellington's career was marked by reviews which asked when he was going to revive this or that tune, and involved research into whether something the reviewer hadn't heard before was new or had been recorded much earlier.

This is the most unpredictable recording. Ellington was always doing something, and often doing something else. Mel Torme did make one classic statement (others would be worth collecting) of how unbelievably bad the Ellington band could be on an off-night! This is neither bad nor any kind of off-night, and as Ellington said of James P. Johnson, there never was another.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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