Thursday, 11 December 2008

After My Time

The years immediately either side of 1950 saw Duke Ellington particularly busy in the studio every December.

Of the pieces he recorded in these Decembers – selections for the Musicraft label or The Liberian Suite, it is the second movement from The Controversial Suite which seems most redolent of the month in which it was recorded and the approaching festive season.

Later (also known as After My Time?)was recorded fifty seven years ago today on 11 December, 1951. Surely it is Ellington’s first essay at film scoring. The clockwork rhythm of the piece initially conjures a sort of dystopian vision of the night before Christmas, sightless dolls and teddy bears – their mouths as tight as sutures – in listless repose amongst the pine needles and discarded candy foil wrappings at the foot of the tree. This incessant and ultimately unnerving tick-tock clarion of the trumpets builds to create a sonic landscape which is straight out of Salvador Dali via Alfred Hitchcock.

This is the music of the spectre at the feast, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, the nerveless white hand beneath the black cloak outstretched and pointing remorselessly towards our impending mortality, Paul Gonsalves’ solo, Scrooge’s lament at his own graveside. From the dissonant cords and Ellington’s discordant fills at the piano to the steady building of the crescendo, it is a striking piece of work as the clock on the wall is striking even now.

I read somewhere – and annoyingly cannot now remember where – that George Handy took some part in writing this piece. It is overwhelmingly, though, as the title suggests, largely a note from Ellington to himself for the threads of thought - the walking bass line which surfaced again in the composition La Plus Belle Africaine, for instance - which he was to pick up... later.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Jeep's Blues

Sunday last, I finally acquired a copy of the long out-of-print The Complete Johnny Hodges 1951-55 on Mosaic Records.

When this box set crops up on one or another of the internet auction sites, it always attracts a lot of attention. Mosaics do, of course: Mosaic is the Rolls Royce of jazz re-issues and their limited print runs only contribute to the furore when a discontinued set is up for grabs.

The desirability of this particular anthology is also due to the fact, of course, that it is Johnny Hodges and the period it covers is those years when, it was thought, Hodges had abandoned the Duke Ellington Orchestra for good in order to forge a solo career.

Nicknames occasionally have an apposite cruelty bordering on the poetic. Hodges had two nick names – Rabbit and Jeep. Eugene the Jeep was a character in the syndicated Popeye cartoons. When asking what a Jeep was, Popeye was told

“A Jeep is an animal living in a three dimensional world-in this case our world- but really belonging to a fourth dimensional world. Here's what happened. A number of Jeep life cells were somehow forced through the dimensional barrier into our world. They combined at a favorable time with free life cells of the African Hooey Hound. The electrical vibrations of the Hooey Hound cell and the foreign cell were the same. They were kindred cells. In fact, all things are to some extent are relative, whether they be of this or some other world, now you see. The extremely favorable conditions of germination in Africa caused a fusion of these life cells. So the uniting of kindred cells caused a transmutation. The result, a mysterious strange animal.”

A creature from the fourth dimension, living in the third is a fairly apt way of describing the jazz musician and his preoccupation with keeping time. I don’t doubt the nick name was more a matter of physiognomy than physics: the hare-like set of Hodges eyes, the shape of his embouchure bore a startling resemblance to the family leporidae.

The recordings Hodges made under his own name in the early fifties are not, presently, in print in any form. Prior to pulling the trigger on this Mosaic set at auction, I had assembled all but the final year of his solo recordings (comprising, basically, the album Creamy) from various sources. The Spanish label Blue Moon issued all the recordings on three different volumes. They are still to be had on Amazon marketplace and so forth, from time to time, although the final volume in particular is elusive. Verve in Japan have also re-issued two of his albums from this period – Castle Rock and Used to be Duke - in those desirable Bonsai cardboard sleeve editions.

A big surprise to me, listening to these CDs however was the kind of music that Hodges made during these years. Ironically, in view of the Herculean efforts I have made to get hold of these recordings, I am less a fan of Hodges than other soloists in the Ellington band. Perhaps this is because he makes it all sound so easy: those seamless, sweet solos seem to be rolled out almost effortlessly like so much marzipan. Hodges work on alto makes a very interesting contrast to Paul Gonslaves in the reed section. I find Gonsalves’ work to be much more compelling, his serpentine solos sounding as though the tenor player is physically wresting every note from his horn as though he is attempting to wrestle a python to the ground.

There is very little of Hodges characteristic sugar rum cherry tone in these sides, however. Rather it is as though the new leader were trying to court the pop market – a fairly miserable place for a jazz man to be in the early fifties – Hodges, here, flirting with big band era ballads (Al Hibbler singing This Love of Mine) and rhythm and blues – perhaps under the influence of Al Sears.

What did Hodges make of it all? It is difficult to tell for his Buddha countenance was always so inscrutable. His attempted solo career catalogued in this Mosaic set lasted only four years and then he was back with Duke. Did he return to the Ellington fold with his cotton tail between his legs?

The question of why Hodges’ solo material was so at variance with the sound and style he pedalled with the Ellington Orchestra and how he felt about his return to that aggregation are covered in a fascinating article I ran to ground on the net by Jack Chambers for Coda magazine which you can read here.

And if you are attempting to compile a complete record of Hodges’ solo activities in the early fifties from parts – as I did – the complete discography for this period can be found here.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Empty Ballroom Blues

Spent Saturday night auditioning Oliver Nelson’s 1970 album Black, Brown and Beautiful.

I came across the album googling Duke Ellington’s composition Empty Ballroom Blues. It is the first track on this album. The discovery that Johnny Hodges was present made this an essential purchase.

I did not know very much about Oliver Nelson. I had a copy of his album Blues and the Abstract Truth for the presence of Bill Evans – but I did not know that Oliver had died so young – in 1975 at the age of just forty three years old. In one of those accidents of synchronism, I pulled the album off the shelf last night in the week of the thirty-third anniversary of his death on 28 October.

The Ellington connections are interwoven into the very warp and woof of the repertoire here: credited co-composer of Empty Ballroom Cootie Williams employed Nelson’s brother in the forties and amongst other Ellingtonian pieces, the album contains Echoes of Harlem which was renamed Concerto for Cootie.
Even the album’s title – one of three Nelson compositions - is a nod to Ellington’s oeuvre.

Clearly Nelson is an Ellington disciple as one could say Charles Mingus was. And like Mingus, however difficult the terrain can be at times to negotiate for someone with rather more mainstream sensibilities, the listener persists because he knows the journey will be inherently of worth, trusting his sherpa to provide music which is always compelling. So, whilst, generally, 1970 is about where I get off, despite – or perhaps because of – the electric rhythm and piano present here on Skull Session, I found the whole of the album richly satisfying. The Ellington melodies, of course – and in particular what Nelson does with Rockin’ in Rhythm – are particularly welcome. But the whole menu – including Jobim’s Meditation are recordings I will turn to time and again. The approach of featured singer, Leon Thomas, is further testament to the avant garde nature of the jazz of this period. Thomas is clearly the great inheritor – not of the Jimmy Rushing style of blues shouting – but perhaps, more, Joe Williams. There was, always, I felt a slightly harder edge and less warmth in Williams’ approach, taking the blues into a more urban environment. Leon Thomas seems to take that hard edge a step further still – really, I suppose, into the territory of Soul singing – with suggestions, almost of aggression in his delivery (of the music in this album, and Nelson’s own alto solos in particular, liner note contributior Stanley Dance uses the word ‘astringent’). This is a sign of the times – and one evinces this style of music in Ellington’s work itself at this period, notably the sublime New Orleans Suite where I had associated Ellington’s more strident approach to his compositions less with social protest than rage at the dying of the light.

Black, Brown and Beautiful is currently out of print but, truly, worth scouring the usual auction houses for. In many ways, it is a companion piece to New Orleans Suite, featuring, as it does, the final recorded work of Johnny Hodges and, in Oliver Nelson, an explorer after Ellington’s own heart: a Columbus gathering his charts and setting out to prove the world is not square.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Food of Love

If music be the food of love…

I can think of no better way of describing Duke Ellington’s work. Always, finishing an Ellington album, the listener feels nourished, warmed and sustained as though he has had a good meal.

The line, of course, opens Twelfth Night. Ellington’s music once furnished a production of the comedy re-titled Play On. The CD sits in my to play… pile.

But connections between the Bard and Ellington run much more deeply than that, however. There is Ellington’s own score for Timon of Athens and, perhaps most famously of all, the suite composed and recorded, initially for the Shakespeare festival, Stratford, Ontario, Such Sweet Thunder. There is a fascinating transcript of an interview with Ellington at the time, Shakespeare is dug by the craziest of cats, here.

But still deeper, the respective genius of Shakespeare and Ellington courses. As Shakespeare wrote his parts for particular players, so, too, did Ellington. Ellington’s manuscripts are often sketchy, leaving it to the responsibility of the soloist to supply the rest, as Shakespeare’s actors originally extemporized, bringing something of themselves to the performance.

Shakespeare was writing at a time when the London theatre was a crucible of brilliant invention, as Ellington’s New York was in the era of the great dance bands – yet these two geniuses bestrode their worlds like a Colossus, their work testing and pushing the form to places it might otherwise never have reached. Whilst they were classicists who respected, and largely worked within, the form, they were certainly never above pushing the envelope.

But, perhaps, most significantly of all is the pulse which coursed through the forms within which they worked. For Shakespeare, this was the rhythm of the heart beat in the iambic pentameter. For Ellington, he was largely writing music to dance to. The second half of the documentary A Duke Named Ellington demonstrates brilliantly that everything Duke wrote, potentially, was music for dancing, lending itself even to ballet – a form for which I found a new interest seeing the footage in this film.

Of course jazz necessarily had other rhythms to walk to when the Swing Era had largely blown itself out at the end of the Second World War. Classicism, it seems, always gives way to romanticism – so Charlie Parker’s records on Dial and Savoy were, in many ways, did for jazz what Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads did for poetry, exploding accepted forms.

But to surrender the dance beat is to surrender your position in the mainstream. Jazz became less and less a social music, music for dancing, dining and more an appeal to the intellect. Ellington, however, never forgot the dance – his music was, is and will remain an appeal not to the nut but to the gut.

You can read more about Shakespeare and Ellington at the Shakespeare Folger Library here.