This review is dedicated to the memory of Norris Turney. Not a name that causes much of a ripple even in the jazz world, but a fine musician who died in January of this year. To him fell the daunting task of replacing the irreplaceable as he took over from Johnny Hodges in the last years of the Ellington orchestra. Hodges’ alto was so central to the Ellington sound that for some his death marked the end of the band proper. The remaining years are seen as a mere coda. Togo Brava Suite comes from those years. It is for the most part a delight and it is my pleasure to report that Turney contributes greatly to the album’s success. In fact the high spot of the record is probably not the actual Suite itself but a poised and poignant version of “Checkered Hat”, a Turney-penned tribute to Hodges.
The saxophonist had grown up listening to Hodges and his own ambition was to one day be part of the great band. That wish was fulfilled in 1970, relatively late in his career. Ellington had only four years to live but was as busy as ever and Turney loomed large in that final period. As well as his Hodges-like sax he added flute, an instrument that had not previously featured in the orchestra. Like the other musicians who joined Ellington at the latter end of the band’s life, he never really emerged from the shadows of the legendary names that preceded him.This reissue gives us a chance to do some proper assessment of these players and of the quality of Ellington’s last compositions.
In his fascinating but not always helpful autobiography, Ellington makes the claim that he had no interest in posterity. Perhaps. For some reason though, from 1950 onwards he regularly recorded his band at his own expense. These sessions are known as “the stockpile” and have been popping up in various formats for a while now. This album is then not an actual “reissue” but 1971’s “stockpile” takes. It consists of the seven part Togo suite and ten tracks that were features of the then current repertoire. As these musical diaries were not intended for full commercial release there is a less than completely finished sound (and quality of sound) to some pieces but a compensatory freshness and intimacy about the whole set. Sort of half way between a live concert and a fully polished studio engagement, if you can picture that.
The Suite was written in response to Togo honouring Ellington on a stamp series of famous composers and was both a thank you and a meditation on Africa and African independence. Ellington was a more politically conscious thinker than his image suggests and while hardly a propagandist had a definite agenda. This is not African-influenced in any obvious sense but there is a concept of “Africa” — melodically, rhythmically and spiritually — that is evoked. Hence there are references to earlier pieces — some very “Creole Love Call” clarinet courtesy of veteran Russell Procope — and a wonderful use of trombone lines to provide a counterpoint to rather more complex percussive patterns than one associates with the Duke.
The full suite is available here for the first time. The opening section “Mikis” sees Ellington in good expressive mode and Turney’s flute adds to the charm of the delicate melody. The next section “Tego” was rarely performed but heaven knows why. A beautiful, lilting, very Caribbean tune, it has an ease and a warmth that makes it my favourite segment by some way. The success of the rest of the suite depends on how much one finds the rather dated big band flourishes get in the way of some fine musicianship. There is a filmic quality of which Ellington, ever the impressionist, was an absolute master, but also a slight heavy-handedness about the arrangements — possibly too brash for modern ears. As to solos, Ellington is the star, his piano work more to the fore than one is used to. Harold Ashby is also prominent, but his bluesy style never quite works for me — except on actual blues. The closing “Toto” is a concise summary of the whole composition with Turney (again on flute) getting the last word. The sum is perhaps less than its component parts but some of those parts are as good as anything in the Ellington canon. If there is any discernible deterioration of his power as composer or performer then it passed me by.
The rest of the CD is inevitably rather bitty. All the vocal tracks are disposable. The gospelly “There’s a Place” and the very corny, Las Vegas-style “Making the Scene” are horrible and “Lover Man” has been done much better — on many occasions. The uptempo numbers are mostly for big band swing buffs only which leaves the blues and the ballads. The three blues titles allow Ashby’s Websterish tone to function properly and also heralds the arrival of Wild Bill Davis. Now you either love or hate Davis’ pre-Jimmy Smith Hammond sound. I love it but I am in a minority. Most will find it quaint at best — hackneyed at worst. Anyhow try “Blues” itself for the best example. Apart from some classy interplay between organ and piano, it gives bassist Joe Benjamin a rare chance to shine. Even the Acid Jazz generation might find themselves grooving along to this one.
And so to “Checkered Hat”. This evokes the ghost of Hodges’ beautifully and is second only to Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” as a memorial piece. It is also, I think, an act of respect to the whole Ellington sound. As a reminder of the joy of a full-toned alto sax, played with purpose and precision, it takes some beating. Turney went on to record with the likes of Phyllis Hyman and to make some memorable small group albums, but “Hat” is his moment of glory. This homage to his hero serves equally well as his own lasting artistic statement.
On the whole, this is primarily a dedicated fans must-have release and of passing interest to most. I would however recommend it to all, if only to check the following things — Ellington as pianist, Joe Benjamin as ultra-hip bass player, Ashby and Davis as two of the most individual voices Ellington ever employed. Oh, and the tightness of the whole orchestra -but we take that for granted, don’t we? Above all, whether on flute or alto, Norris Turney is a revelation and will hopefully mean more to jazz fans now than he has so far done. If there was a tailing-off, either in the leader or his band’s competence, in the early 1970s it is not evident here — except perhaps in the aforementioned tiredness of the big band swing style itself. If you can live with that then there is as much freshness and vitality in these sessions as you could reasonably wish for.