Sunday, 11 October 2009

Sweets to the sweet

I never thought I would type the name ‘Lawrence Welk’ on these pages but there you go...

The reason? I’ve had the album Johnny Hodges recorded with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra for some time and pulled it from the shelf last night for my Saturday evening listening.

Back in the day, apparently, Welk was king of Saturday night television. Ironic, then, that I should seek refuge with this album whilst in the next room, my wife watched X-Factor. Plus ca change

Originally recorded in 1965 and released on the Dot label, the album is nowhere near as cheesy as you might expect, considering the man wielding the baton is the terminally square titular band leader and accordion player. In truth, why should it be? Perhaps Welk is most famous for serving up anodyne pap down the cathode ray tube on a Saturday night, but his relationship to the actual music he is conducting is likely no more direct than, say, in another age, Paul Whiteman or Jackie Gleason. His is the name only in the phrase ‘name band’ and, enjoying the huge commercial success he did, I suppose he could employ anyone and make whatever music he liked. In terms of the actual scoring, then, the list of writers he contracted runs like a who’s who of Hollywood arrangers. There is one chart each for the likes of Marty Paich, Russ Garcia, Johnny Keating, Benny Carter, for heaven’s sake, and Glenn Miller’s chief of staff on his civilian and service orchestras, Jerry Gray.

Of course, to an extent the writers have to deliver within the self-imposed paradigms of Welk’s wall-to-wall easy listening and the backgrounds are, therefore, fairly uninvolving. But then you have Hodges, sailing serenely and obliviously above it all. As was ever his wont. If any musician could transcend Welk’s elevator music, it is Johnny Hodges for, truth to tell, even with the Ellington aggregation behind him, Johnny was always, somehow, above it all, his music in its own self-contained bubble, the inscrutable saxophonist seemingly impervious to his surroundings. Above it all, his music descrying the sort of progress those globules of oil perform in a lava lamp. Like bubbles of carbon dioxide, Hodges’ solos perhaps were perfectly at home in this champagne music.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

A drum! A drum!

A member of the Duke-LYM mailing list recently posted a link to a splendid cache of photographs capturing the telecast of Duke Ellington’s A Drum is a Woman.

Kinescopes of the original broadcast survive, I believe. Short of viewing these recordings – well, these photographs, taken by Thomas Mcavoy for Life magazine, give some idea of the visuals that went with the music.

Until I saw these images, it had never quite struck me before how A Drum is a Woman must owe its lineage to those days and nights the Ellington Orchestra had been the ‘house band’ at The Cotton Club. What we have here, essentially, is a floor show - the floor, in this case, being that of a television studio.

Although one or two aspects of the lyrics may set the nerves of a modern sensibility jangling like a shop bell, the music – interwoven with Ellington’s witty, urbane narrative – is sublime.
The album has never been released on compact disc in the USA. Frustratingly two CDs worth of material (and in stereo, if memory serves) were prepared by Phil Schaap – and even assigned an issue number – ten years ago for release as part of the celebrations for Ellington’s centennial. For some reason, the release never saw the light of day. The album has been re-issued recently on CD in Europe where its copyright has lapsed but struck not, of course, from the master tapes. These beautiful prints may rekindle some interest in the project – as part of a Mosaic re-issue, perhaps?

The photographs may be viewed here.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Vive Le Duke!

News of a band in France dedicated to perpetuating Ellington’s rich legacy in performance: The Duke Orchestra directed by Laurent Mignard.

A CD compiled from several live performances last winter has just been issued on the Juste-une-Trace label and I have been enjoying its contents enormously this last couple of weekends past.

The album is called Duke Ellington Is Alive. Ellington’s music certainly ‘lives’ – and it should be brought ‘live’ to festivals and concerts for – hopefully – particularly young audiences to enjoy.

Mignard’s fidelity to Ellington’s oeuvre goes deep – not only in terms of the accuracy with which the arrangements are reproduced – but the extent of the repertoire – which on this disc includes such neglected gems as Half the Fun, The Eigth Veil and – best of all, one of my own favourite Ellington perennial’s Ad Lib On Nippon. This latter is a feature for the luminous talents of Aurelie Tropez on clarinet who appeared recently with Les Red Hot Reedwarmers at the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival. Wish I’d joined the dots sooner on this – it would have been well worth the trip to the coast.

At the moment, I think The Duke Orchestra’s itinerary has been confined solely to France. Their activities are part of a larger outreach – Le circle des amis de Duke - which includes education. I do hope they venture abroad soon. Friends of Duke Ellington everywhere should welcome this venture – buy the CD and also – literally – the T Shirt. A presence on My Space is another of the joys of performing this music in the modern age – and a potential resource for the future.

I bought my copy of the disc from Amazon France. Details here. There is further reading about The Duke Orchestra here. There is also an official website.

And should there still be any naysayer, just enjoy this gorgeous video of – appropriately enough – Kinda Dukish and Rockin’ in Rhythm will dispel any doubt. The video was recorded during the orchestra’s recent performance at the Jazz a Vienne Festival.

Monday, 15 June 2009

"I'll be the judge of that..."

Ellington’s score stands in oblique relation to the film Anatomy of a Murder. What Ellington and Strayhorn wrote was not a conventional movie score in the usual sense. None of it could be said to underscore the characters or situations, to provide ‘stings’ or cues. No wonder it works so beautifully as a self-contained album. Had Ellington titled this a suite, one could hardly disagree, such is its cohesion, the pattern of repeating motifs and refrains. Some would argue that these repetitions are down to the fact that Ellington was stretching his music thinly; that the music is sketchy - although that is entirely the point.

Take the composition Happy Anatomy, for example, the first tune up on the recording session of 1 June, 1959. It begins like a sort of half baked riff number of the kind Count Basie was routinely knocking out about this time – except you feel someone like Neal Hefti could probably have made a better job of it. But then in the out choruses, suddenly there are these great stabbing chords thrown about like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas and the whole thing suddenly turns through about a hundred and eighty degrees and takes off. Solos by Clark Terry and Paul Gonsalves lift it to a higher plane. But then for Ellington – who often in his concerts would speak of his men and their ‘solo responsibilities’, the whole thing was about creating space for these virtuosi to make their magic. And suddenly something is there totally beyond anything the Basie band could reach. Or any other aggregation come to that. That is the alchemy of Duke Ellington.

Was this free-standing suite what Otto Preminger had in mind for his movie? One can only assume so. One can assume further that it was a stroke of genius on the director’s part to commission Ellington in the first place. That jazz should be the music of choice for the soundtrack makes sense when Polly (as the Jimmy Stewart character is known) is a jazz fan. Music is used in the film pretty realistically – it is there in real time – as Polly noodles on the piano or in the roadhouse with Pie Eye. Long stretches of the film are without any music at all –it is set in a court room, after all – a place not usually noted for the evanescent strain of a string section in the air every few minutes, punctuating the discourse or telling the audience what to feel.

But I would argue further that it is not just jazz which is the perfect choice for this film but -specifically - Ellington’s jazz. For what other music besides Ellington’s own is so ambiguous – so lugubrious – so full of grace as Duke’s? For it is ambiguity, lugubriousness and grace which characterise the whole tone of the film.

This is a film for grown ups. There are no easy answers; no clear cut conclusions. Motives are mixed; morality is ambivalent.

Lieutenant Frederick Manion – who has served in Korea - is accused of the murder of bar tender Barney Quill who allegedly raped Manion’s wife, Laura. Whatever the provocation, there are no circumstances mitigating murder, however. Stewart’s lawyer coaches his client in pleading temporary insanity. But was his wife violated? Or did she encourage Barney Quill’s attentions, her husband assaulting her physically and then murdering Quill because of their dalliance down a local lover’s lane?

The case hangs on the whereabouts of Laura Manion’s ‘panties’ and one exchange in particular in court on this subject rather shows the film as a product of its time. Whilst the scene jars with modern sensibilities, nobody nowadays should be so complacent as to believe we’ve moved on, however. At the mention of the word ‘panties’, the courtroom descends into schoolboy sniggering. The Judge cautions them that there is nothing to laugh at when the offending article may be responsible for the death of one man and the possible incarceration of another. One might have thought that the judge might have thought fit to mention that the allegations of the woman in the case are not to be taken lightly either but she figures little in this battle over the fate of the men folk.

Whilst this is clearly a trial for murder and not rape (indeed prosecution and defence do not initially want to raise the question of whether Laura Manion was violated or not since it has no bearing on the charge of murder), nevertheless the woman’s own feelings seem to be of little consequence.

Was Ellington’s music colluding – by association – with such latent sexism? Flirtibird , for example, hardly seems a particularly sensitive title for a theme written for the alleged victim of assault. It’s not too far a distance from that title to the implied accusations at the trial that wearing figure-hugging sweaters or being ‘high’ on drink is just asking for trouble.

However, this is also borne out by Lee Remick’s performance in the film – the character seems rarely troubled by her experiences – and indeed is lectured at one point by James Stewart – in patrician mode – for continuing to hang out with the boys at the club house whilst her husband awaits trial.

Was the murder then committed simply out of jealous rage? Is Manion a sort of Bob Ewell figure from To Kill A Mockingbird – punishing his woman for her transgression and her putative lover in the process?

Ben Gazzara’s portrayal of the husband never canvases any sympathy. It is a performance totally free of any sentimentality – which only begs the question why Paul Biegler should want to represent him.

The lawyer makes no bones about his physical attraction to Mrs Manion and she candidly says she has always been aware of the effect she has on men. But did she encourage their attentions? And was it a criminal offence in any case if she did?

For the character of Laura Manion is damned if she did. Damned if she didn’t. Like the women of the seventeenth century condemned as witches (and Joseph N Welsh here playing the judge was a judge in real life who stood against the McCarthy witch hunts) and thrown into the river – if they floated they were burned at the stake, if they were innocent, they drowned.

She could wish her husband were found guilty, in which case she would be free, yet he must be found not guilty to exonerate herself. In fighting for such a verdict, Biegler is consigning her to a prison and himself, perhaps, to his lonely bachelorhood of fly fishing and jazz (though romance has as little place in this film as any other sentimentality).

But such is the verdict that Biegler fights for and obtains. James Stewart’s casting is inspired, simply because the actor carries with him such morality and integrity.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” his character remarks at one point. But this is a film which ultimately teaches us the value exactly of not judging. Stewart’s character moves in a man’s world; the trial is about two men. The woman is apparently a ‘flirtibird’ – and yet the film is all about Stewart reaching beyond the man’s world, behind the flirtatious surface – to reach the woman. Whilst a product of its time (and how I cherish those opening shots of Stewart’s automobile returning through the empty streets of Thunder Bay, his calling in at the local bar – the cars and bars of the fifties -saloons both – have such a style, such a nostalgia – but the fifties were also cruel times to be in if you were amongst the oppressed), the film does show that whatever Laura Manion may or may not have done – however she is a victim of the irresistible impulses which can drive us all –she does not deserve the castigation a guilty verdict for her husband may well trail in its wake. Despite the courtroom setting, the film is a plea not to judge.

Which brings me back to Duke Ellington’s music. In its ambivalence, its lugubrious undertow, its generosity and the capaciousness of its grace, it is the perfect expression of tolerance.

Ellington achieved huge success and as a result was often accused of a sort of complicity with the status quo on any number of fronts. But Ellington’s art does not make such judgements.

In its capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others, it is the epitome of tolerance.

Even if Anatomy of a Murder were the story of the woman taken in adultery, Ellington’s sublime soundtrack is saying Let he who is without sin…

It is music of understanding beyond not just words – to quote Steinbeck– but understanding beyond thought.

Whatever Ellington’s inspiration for the soundtrack – the novel, the script, Lee Remick herself – like the rest of Ellington’s oeuvre it came from a beautiful place– and Ellington – and his composing and arranging companion Billy Strayhorn – were the perfect choice for this movie.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Happy Anatomy

I have been meaning to get around to writing about the fiftieth anniversary of Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder for weeks now – and I have been beaten to it. Go here to read Hans Koert’s thoughts on this album on his Keep Swinging blog.

Whilst much fuss has been made lately – and rightly so – of 1959 as The Year That Changed Jazz with special reissues of the albums Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Mingus Ah Um and Time Out, Ellington’s major contribution to that year’s recordings has been largely overlooked.

Well, fair enough. The album was neither the critical nor commercial success of those venerable collections listed above. It was neither any more nor any less than jazz fans had come to expect, I guess, from the many albums Ellington was releasing at that time in the immediate aftermath of his renaissance at Newport. It was, however, Ellington’s first commission for a motion picture soundtrack and its anniversary is as good an excuse as any for us to pause and to reflect on Ellington’s achievements in this sphere.

Otto Preminger had already enjoyed considerable success with marrying jazz to film four years earlier with The Man with the Golden Arm. Given that so many jazz musicians had migrated west at the end of the big band era to take up steady jobs in recording studios, it seems logical that they should find their way to the soundstages of Hollywood. Or you would think so. Jazz musicians unfortunately suffered a – not entirely unwarranted – reputation for unreliability, sufficient, at any rate, to frighten off the placemen and accountants who ran the movie business so their involvement in this work was slow. Following the success of Man with the Golden Arm, composers such as Elmer Bernstein used jazz as a regular ingredient in their music for films such as The Sweet Smell of Success.

Ellington, however, was an altogether different kettle of fish. With Ellington, you were buying into both an entirely self-sufficient unit of music makers and also a distinct personality, philosophy, style and sound in the man himself and the way this was expressed through his music. In the music, what you basically had was another character in the film. Ellington himself appeared, briefly, as Pie Eye, the manager of a road house, but just in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in his own films, so Ellington’s imprimatur was not confined to his fifteen minutes of fame in front of the camera. Through his music, Ellington’s finger prints were all over the film.

What was Ellington’s mode of composition, his inspiration for the film's score?

Unlike the way, for example, Miles Davis created the music for Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud by improvising in front of a screening of the film itself – Ellington did not have moving images or a print of the film to score to. He did have access to a film script (a copy of the script of the movie is available here) and was alleged to have read the novel. But to what extent did the actual plot influence Ellington at all in his writing?

By all accounts it was Lee Remick herself rather than the character she played who was the inspiration for one of the main themes of the soundtrack, Flirtibird.

Ellington and the band were in the studios a little month before the film premiered. Even by Duke’s standards, this is cutting it fine.

But then, that is Ellington's essential mystery and magic. Like some prestidigitateur, producing with a flourish a bouquet of flowers where formerly there was a wand, Ellington's score will suddenly appear, apparently out of nowhere.

Listening to this svelte soundtrack, I am reminded of a conjurer’s act – the reed section a velvet curtain which Ellington draws back and forth across the cabinet of delights, teasing us, shooting his cuffs in assurance that there is nothing up his sleeve, his audience looking in vain to find the lady.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Return to Lonely Street

Following my recent post on the Charlie Barnet album Lonely Street, I have been in correspondence with Desne Villepigue, daughter of composer Paul.

Desne kindly supplied the sequence of tunes from the original vinyl album. I am delighted to add the details here:

SIDE 1:I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; The Moon Is Yellow(sic); Serenade In Blue; You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To; Isn't This A Lovely Day; Lonely Street

SIDE 2:Myna; Phylisse; Lumby; Blue Rose; Hear Me Talking To You; Lemon Twist

I have amended the play list in my iPod accordingly and am enjoying this album now as it was meant to be heard.

A significant player in the album’s creation was overlooked entirely by me in my original post, too. I think I believed the mournful brass work accompanying Barnet’s solos on the soprano saxophone was a trombone. The wrong idea. It was, in fact, a bass trumpet played by Dave Wells. Desne writes:

Dave Wells told me this story about the idea for the album: Dave was playing bass trumpet with Charlie on sop sax leading a small combo out on Catalina Island the summer of 1956. Charlie wanted to do an album featuring what he called "the two bastard instruments" with full band plus strings. Dave, who was then on the faculty of Westlake College of Music along with Russ Garcia, recommended Russ as the arranger.

I am pleased to add this fascinating information, helping to ensure Dave Wells gets due credit for his part in creating this magnificent album, his own tender obligato emphasising the bruised nature of these ballads on love and loss. Thank you, Desne.

With regard to her father’s part in the music, Desne writes additionally:

The original score for "Lonely Street," handwritten in pencil, is presently held by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Until recently, it was misidentified as being Paul's original score (from 1948-49). But I sent a photocopy to Russ and he confirmed that it was indeed his, noting: "I remember the mistake in the last four bars. The Vibra and Celeste were written a whole step too high. I corrected it at the session but I see that I never changed the score."

Several original Paul Villepigue charts are included, however, as additional material, from the album Dancing Party. We shall look at those and Charlie Barnet’s original recording of Lonely Street in future posts.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Happy Birthday, Duke

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born this day, 29 April, 1899.

You can join the celebrations at WKCR, Columbia University Radio in New York which will be broadcasting Duke's music for the next twenty-four hours.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Lonely Street

I’m somewhat ambivalent about CD re-issues which are released within Europe without licence from the major label which owns them because copyright has lapsed after fifty years. I have many in my collection so to condemn these issues outright would be hypocritical. The alternative is to be Jesuitical – or to dance on the head of a pin or whatever the expression is – which, to be honest, is how I justify their place on my shelves.

Since such re-issues are legal within the European Community, I buy these releases where they contain material which is not otherwise available. And, strictly speaking, these CDs ought to be produced from original fifty-year old plus vinyl or shellac. It has been the case that these reissue houses will occasionally pirate legitimate releases from the likes of Mosaic –who have paid their dues – and put them out at minimal cost to themselves. The music may be more than fifty years old but the mastering certainly is not. This is hardly ethical.

Provenance is everything then to my pick-and-mix morality on this point. I would much rather a legitimate release existed. If not and this material languishes unissued somewhere in one of the major’s vaults, then a ‘copy of the LP’ seems to me a reasonable way to go. Second hand vinyl, after all, changes hands on Ebay sometimes for astronomical prices – and not a penny of this goes to the artists or their families.

Charlie Barnet’s album Lonely Street is a case in point. I have only ever seen one copy of the original album – in Ray’s Jazz in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road. It looked pretty dog-eared and was upwards of forty pounds. I couldn’t afford it. The new CD re-issue from Lonehill Jazz (a major Spanish operation in this field) claims this is the first time this album appears on CD. I can believe that. And I believe it, partly, because of the sound of the CD which sounds horribly processed in places- as though the life has been wrung out of the sound of the original vinyl in order to wring out the snap, crackle and pops. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But how else are you going to hear this wonderful music?

The CD comprises the entire album plus selections from two other Barnet LPs. This week I burnt a copy of just the tracks from Lonely Street to a CD (in session order, since the CD notes do not contain the album’s original running order and I cannot trace a copy of the original vinyl on line) for listening in the car.

The sessions comprise a standard big band for four of the tracks with some major hitters amongst the ranks and two sessions with strings. The discography I found on line which is printed below credits Russ Garcia as director. I am assuming, therefore, he arranged the pieces on this album.

Charlie Barnet was never quite carried along on the big band era’s ‘second wind’ to the extent that contemporaries such as Count Basie or Woody Herman were, nor even the ‘newer fellas’ like Ray Anthony. I doubt he had a regular road band by 1956, so this is strictly a studio session. Barnet’s name would still have been a draw, I suppose, to some extent, the inclusion of strings a necessary nod to the packaging of ‘mood’ albums during that period and a chance to hear Barnet stretch out on the soprano sax another reason for buying the record.

Barnet’s predilection for all things Ducal which was such a hallmark of his original band is in evidence here, too, with the inclusion of Billy Strayhorn’s Blue Rose – a composition the EKE band had only just recorded themselves for the first time that year for their Columbia album with Rosemary Clooney.

There seems, too, to be more than an echo of EKE’s Prelude to a Kiss in the brass work for the Barnet original Phylysse. And Barnet’s work on the soprano throughout, well, it is a sort of re-mix of the Apostolic succession, if you will, a shuffling of the laying on of hands in that it is Hodges coming out of Bechet coming out of Hodges - the New Orleans sound of Bechet’s soprano rippling like the lights on the Mississipi now streamlined and without vibrato.

Garcia’s writing for strings gives the album a sort of Hollywood B-Movie feel in places – the opening of Phylysse being a case in point. One is reminded of windswept autumn leaves crowding against the wet railings of some neglected yard. The album’s recording in November and December only adds to the gloom and seems suited perfectly to the maudlin sound of Barnet’s sax against the lachrymose strings.

Then there is the composition which gives the album its title. Lonely Street was the creation of Paul Villepigue. Please visit the web pages dedicated to his memory here. I shall return to his work –as I turn to his music – time and again in posts to come.

This album is an exquisite listening experience which Lonehill have at least made available to the public again. It is a prime candidate for re-issue on the Verve originals imprint – when I shall gladly buy a copy and see these musicians and writers are given the financial – as well as the artistic due – their remarkable accomplishments on this collection deserve. Until then, the album can be found here.

Album session details:
Conrad Cozzo, Carlton McBeath, Ralph Mullens, Dave Wells (tp) Bob Burgess, Dick Nash (tb) Willie Smith (as) Charlie Barnet (as, ss, ts) Bill Holman (ts) Bob Dawes, Ernie Small (bars) Norman Pockrandt (p) Bob Bain (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d) Russ Garcia (dir) unidentified strings
Los Angeles, CA, September 24, 1956
20405-4 : The Moon Was Yellow
Verve MGV 2040
20406-11 Myna
Verve V 10036, MGV 2040
20407-6 You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To
Verve MGV 2040
20408-10 Phylisse
Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)* Charlie Barnet - Myna c/w Lonely Street (Verve V 10036)

Gene Duermeyer, Maynard Ferguson, Carlton McBeath, Ollie Mitchell, Ralph Mullens (tp) Dave Wells (btp) Roy Anderson, Bob Burgess, Dick Nash (tb) Dick Paladino, Willie Smith (as) Charlie Barnet (as, ss) Bill Holman, Bill Trujillo (ts) Bob Dawes (bars) Norman Pockrandt (p) Barney Kessel (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d)
Los Angeles, CA, November 8, 1956
20460-5 Blue Rose
Verve MGV 2040
20461-4 Lemon Twist
20462-2 Lumby
20463-2 Hear Me Talking To You
Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)

Dave Wells (btp) Charlie Barnet (as) Norman Pockrandt (p) Barney Kessel (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d) Russ Garcia (arr, dir) unidentified strings
Los Angeles, CA, December 15, 1956
20464-10 I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues
Verve MGV 2040
20465-6 Serenade In Blue
20466-2 Lonely Street
Verve V 10036, MGV 2040
20467-7 Isn't This A Lovely Day?
Verve MGV 2040
* Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)* Charlie Barnet - Myna c/w Lonely Street (Verve V 10036)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The beauty, the wonder, the splendour and the majesty...

The last time I was here I had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. I was so thrilled by the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendour of it all that I told Her Majesty that I was sure something musical would come of it. She very, very graciously said she would be listening. And so I wrote a suite of six numbers which were recorded and the only record that was ever pressed, of course, is in the possession of Queen Elizabeth.

Duke Ellington, January 22, 1963

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Duke Ellington recording The Single Petal of a Rose, the final session on The Queen’s Suite.

Ellington tells of the origins of this work in the remarks quoted above made during the course of a television broadcast in London. The phrase the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendour echoes the notes Ellington made on the back of a publicity bill - probably the same evening he was presented to Her Majesty the Queen in 1958.

The notes comprised Ellington’s earliest conception of The Queen’s Suite – a work in six movements.

Ellington wrote:

(1) The Single Petal of a Rose. So delicate, fragile, gentle, luminous. Only God could make one, and like love it should be admired, not analyzed.

(2) Mocking Bird in the Sunset. While speeding across Florida from Tampa to West Palm Beach at 80 m.p.h. It was the half-light of sunset that we passed a bird. It seemed to call to us. We would have liked to have gone back and thanked the bird, but we were much too far down the road and we didn’t knoiw what kind of bird it was anyway. But the first phrase is the melody we heard.

(3) Lightning Bugs and Frogs. It was a hot summer night on the south shore of the Ohio River, a vast clearing with a backdrop of tall silhouetted trees, against which a million lightning bugs were weaving a spangled scrim, a design in symphonic splendour, while the frogs in the orchestra pit (pond in the foreground) provided the audio accompaniment.

(4) Northern Lights. Up in Quebec. All night we watched this, the most majestic stage show I ever saw. It was like being a short man standing behind many tall people at radio City Music Hall or the Palladium. You can’t actually see the performers. You only see lights or shadows, or reflections of the actors’ movements. The prima ballerina, the heavy, the thirty-six girl kickers, the quartette, are all there simultaneously, all night, only magnified a million times. And then when you stop, get out of the car, and look straight up overhead, it’s all going on up there, too. This is terrifying.

(5) Le Sucrier Velour is the name of a bird in France. I have seen pictures of it and think it is a good name for the bird. But after thinking more, I believe a more fitting sight, that encroaches on the domain or sense of taste, is the almost-moustache, the fuzz over the corners of the upper lip of a sweet girl.

(6) Apes and Peacocks. From the Bible: I Kings 10:22. For the King had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tarshish bringing gold and silver, ivory, and apes and peacocks.
Copyright Duke Ellington In Person by Mercer Ellington (Hutchinson, 1978)

One always has to wonder at the extent to which Ellington is putting us on with remarks like these. Le Sucrier Velour was originally entitled Do Not Disturb and was recorded under that title as part of the stockpile of private recordings over three years earlier on 3 January, 1956, the occasion of Johnny Hodges’s return to the band following his ‘sabbatical’. Was Duke rhapsodising over the down-soft top lip of a girl when he entitled the piece Do Not Disturb?

Certainly Sunset and the Mocking Bird as it was finally titled which begins the suite, opens with one of the most delicious Ellington refrains if this is, indeed, taken down from nature.

The melody is taken up throughout the piece by each of the instrumentalists in turn, shouldering their several solo responsibilities. It is less, the cat is put amongst the pigeons as the pigeon is thrown to the cats, as it were. And if it is a competition, - and who knows whether that wasn’t sometimes Ellington’s agenda - the winner is clearly Johnny Hodges who burnishes and caresses the melody in the way only he can.

It is the clarinet, I think, of Jimmy Hamilton which bridges the first two selections, fading away at the end of Mocking Bird and returning with an extended filigree solo at the beginning of Lightning Bugs and Frogs.

If Hamilton traces the path of the lightning bug through the air, the bass chorus of frogs is provided by the wah-wah figures of the brass section, a sonic impressionism to which Ellington returns to sketch in the sounds of the apes and peacocks in the suite’s closing movement.

Sure enough, the saxophone section nudges the melody as softly as peach fuzz in Le Sucrier Velours and it is just as sweet. This is the Ellington band at the apex of its ballroom best. There is no brass work here nor, Ellington’s dappled piano intro aside, no improvisation – just rhythm and the melody carried by the buttery sax section.

The brass section is much in evidence – hitting an almost military stride, in the opening of Northern Lights, the solo reed of Hamilton riding atop their charge before being joined, in harmony, by several other clarinets weeping against the brassy beat. As is often the case in Ellington’s writing, the reeds then dissolve into their constituent parts, Harry Carney’s baritone sax clearly audible in step with the rhythm, echoed by the to brass– the whole piece hitting a pattern of tension-release-tension until the final dissolve and a release under the aegis of a note from Paul Gonsalves.

Did Ellington hold an image of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in his mind’s eye whilst he teased the tender melody from The Single Petal of a Rose? An Ellington piano solo, with a hint of bowed bass from Jimmy Woode, I am listening to it now as I type these notes, fifty years after the fact. The melody seems to want to turn into Solitude at several points. And – in typical Ellington fashion – it lingers, never wanting to make an ending.

Jungle rhythms shimmy in the opening of the suite’s final movement with the saxophone of Paul Gonsalves sounding at its most simian, the chorus of screeching clarinets, the punctuations of the brass suggesting a suitably epic scope.

With The Queen’s Suite, then, Ellington, like Puck, conspires to put a girdle round the earth in something less than forty minutes and at dusk, encompassing its four points and offering the fruits of his travels and a menagerie of Biblical proportions to Her Majesty.

Whilst it was his contention that only a single pressing of The Queen’s Suite was made, there were, in fact, up to half a dozen printed. Whilst Ellington did not want the recording published, following the death of his father, Mercer decided the music was too beautiful for the world to be denied and it appeared on the Pablo label at the end of the seventies, anthologised with two, much later, suites. Whilst the CD is readily available, the best version to try to get hold of – though expensive – is the Japanese pressing detailed here. For this, the collector receives the full version of Loco Madi from The Uwis Suite which, hitherto, had only been available in edited form, even on the original LP release.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Dolphy surround sound

The Journey into Jazz video clip was suggested by a poster to the West Coast Jazz discussion group and I had to paste it into the blog.

I was delighted by the presence of Eric Dolphy in the orchestra. Subliminally aware of Dolphy's name - probably by seeing countless copies of Out to Lunch when browsing the racks of music stores - I had heard none of his music until I listened the other week to Chico Hamilton's Original Ellington Suite. I had never particularly cared for In a Sentimental Mood but when this particular number popped up, the phosphorescent solo on alto -soaring like a distress flare on a dark night - absolutely made me sit up and take notice. I had never heard any player in Ellington's original band render the melody with such dendrite-shredding verve. It was Dolphy.

I pulled the trigger on the CD simply because it is one of the casualties of the culling Blue Note is presently conducting within the ranks of its jazz catalogue. On the strength of Eric Dolphy's solo alone it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my record-buying life. And the recording has much more going for it besides. But that is for another day. If you do not own this beauty, hurry - as they say - while stocks last. It can be purchased here.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Beauty and The Brute

Of all the former Ellingtonians, Ben Webster, I suppose, fell furthest from the nest, spending his last years on the continent of Europe, most notably in Denmark.

I have been celebrating Webster’s centenary this month by watching a DVD of priceless performances in that country. Ben Webster in Denmark (on the Emarcy label) comprises three performances recorded between 1965 and 1969 filmed for Danish television.

The absolute jewel of the collection, however, is the inclusion of Big Ben a documentary about the tenor man made in 1971. It is a privileged insight into what is, almost A Day in the Life of... We see Ben in his unprepossessing flat in Copenhagen, a spartan place bar a fridge, a shelf of LPs and a reel-to-reel recorder on which he listens to the playback of his latest studio session with which the documentary begins. We see him getting into a VW camper van to go to a gig. He talks about the making of Cottontail with the Ellington band, his dismay with the Duke when Ellington told the band they were running the number down for a rehearsal but told the engineers they were going for a take. This was the released version despite Ben’s avowed ‘casual’ solo. He talks about Hawk and Pres, about‘scuffling’ (lovely word) with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

The highlight of the video is when Charlie Shavers drops by, a suitcase loaded with what looks suspiciously like vodka. Bizarrely a man who appears to have come to read the meter is also drawn into this impromptu mid-day drinking session, Ben grabbing him a beer from the fridge. The documentary concludes with two numbers from the gig Webster and Shavers play in a rather dingy cellar.

It is a remarkable document of a unique individual and a great artist. Webster clearly lived for his music, purveying that apparently casual artlessness in his playing but which is, actually, hard won. Shavers (who died the same year the documentary was made) is a joy. It is interesting to watch in their gig how he cracks Ben up with his corny turns of phrase on the trumpet, reminiscent of the sort of mischief Armstrong made, the DVD closing with Webster’s evanescent solo on Stardust.

I cannot recommend this DVD enough. It is an access point for the wonder and joy that is jazz and its makers. Watching the crowd in the cellar gone to the music – the women in their leopard skin tights and luminous sweaters, the men with heavy spectacles and billy goat beards is another reminder - if any were needed - that these are times, rendered here in slightly faded Kodacolor, the like of which we shall not see again.

The DVD is already out of print. Used copies – which are beginning to escalate in price – may be found here.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Sleepless in Seattle

I was alerted to the fact that Wednesday last saw the fifty-seventh anniversary of Duke Ellington's Seattle concert by Kevin Kniestedt's Groove Notes site.

The concert took place at the Civic Auditorium on 25 March, 1952. According to Kevin, this was the first 'live' Ellington album.

A centrepiece of the programme was Louie Bellson's composition Skin Deep and with the drummer's recent passing, it makes this anniversary all the more poignant.

I do not know when the album was first released. With the monster success Ellington achieved with this number, maybe its presence here prompted RCA to release the concert and steal a march on Columbia?

The personnel of the band on that occasion was as follows:

Cat Anderson, Willie Cook, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, t; Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, tb; Juan Tizol, vtb; Jimmy Hamilton, cl, ts; Willie Smith, Russell Procope, as; Paul Gonzalves, ts; Harry Carney, bs; Duke Ellington, p; Wendell Marshall, b; Louie Bellson, d.
And the programme? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
The numbers which appeared on the original album were:
The Hawk Talks

Don't Get Around Much Anymore; In A Sentimental Mood; Mood Indigo; I'm Beginning to See the Light; Prelude to a Kiss; It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Solitude; I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart

Jam With Sam
These selections comprise only a part of the evening's concert. A recording of the entire concert does, in fact, exist and, moreover, exists in stereo. It is in the collection of Ellington aficionado Jerry Valburn. What is worse, RCA have twice turned down Mr Valburn's offer to make the complete stereo recording available, first as an individual compact disc release and then as part of RCA's mammoth twenty-four CD Centennial Edition. In an interview with Peter Lavezzoli for his book The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution, Mr Valburn is quoted as saying:
"They were very foolish, because I offered them the Seattle concert in stereo, the 1952 concert. I have it in stereo, and they didn't want to go the expense. So it remains at the Library of Congress. ... They stuck with the mono recording, and still did not release the complete performance, which by this time is rather frustrating. These things should come out!"
Amen to that. Fifty-seven years after the event, now, and still we wait for the record to be set straight. Here's hoping somebody out there can bring a new release about - if not in time for the hundred and tenth anniversary of Ellington's birth next month - then soon enough hereafter...

Friday, 20 February 2009

Beauty is only...

Louie Bellson was a Titan of the music scene, his deathless recording alone of Skin Deep with Duke Ellington in 1952 sufficient to translate him, in imagination, to the realm of the gods.

The title of the piece is clearly a pun on Bellson’s instruments of choice but after reading in the obituaries this week that following his employment by Ellington, the band embarked on a tour of the south and the band leader decided he would say the drummer was Haitian to avoid confrontation, one could be forgiven for thinking that the title was a comment on this situation.

Louie Bellson's first first session as leader was anthologised in the Mosaic box Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions.

The session was laid down on 23 May, 1952, Louie appointed leader perhaps on the strength of that immortal record with Duke Ellington.

Recorded at the Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, the session comprised eight sides which were released under the title Just Jazz All Stars featuring Louis Bellson on a ten inch Capitol records, H348. I presume the record came about through Gene Norman’s regular Just Jazz concerts, the presence of Wardell Gray – a fixture of the central Avenue scene at this time and the Shrine Auditorium – perhaps offering confirmation.

Both the repertoire and personnel bear the imprimatur of Louie’s new Ellington period. With him on this date are those other two band colleagues and victims of what was known as ‘ the Great James Robbery’, Willie Smith and Juan Tizol. I will have to dig a little deeper into the discography, but Ellington’s raid on the Harry James band was about the time Johnny Hodges left his band to strike out on an abortive solo career. I find it interesting that the first number of this session was The Jeep is Jumpin’ and this is followed by another Hodges vehicle Passion Flower. The latter tune’s composer – and fellow fugitive from the Ellington fold– is the pianist here: Billy Strayhorn.

Fellow Ellingtonians on the session include Harry Carney and Clark Terry.

The balance of the titles on the session shows the influence of the ‘cool school’ with the writing of Shorty Rogers who contributes a couple of compositions and a flavour of that melodic West Coast counter point.

The elastic tenor stylings of Wardell Gray are much in evidence in the two ‘jump’ numbers from the Ellington book. Tizol’s sultry arrangement of Passion Flower is the most Ellingtonian in flavour, Bellson contributing stop-start rolls which only accentuate the Latinate flavour of this piece. His touch elsewhere on these tracks is typically subtle and light, weaving a variety of textures and patterns behind the soloists, his own brief solos the epitome of modernism – all of a piece with the warp and woof of the arrangements.

Needless to say, the centerpiece of the eight selections, in terms of solo work for the drummer, is Shorty Rogers’ composition Sticks – occurring at the crucial half way point in the session. It is the place – just before the intermission – where the extended drum solo occurs in band concerts – impressing more, usually, by its pyrotechnics than any inherent musical quality and, usually, battering the listener into submission, leaving him longing for the exit and a drink on a stick. Not Louie Bellson, however, the varied textures of whose solo here are, as ever, compelling.

For the final selections on this disc, he shares composing honours with Juan Tizol. Tizol’s exotic Rainbow framed by a couple of Bellson originals, Eyes and the languid Shadows, a vehicle for Clark Terry, beginning an association which would come full circle with their final album together recorded last year, Expedition 2.

This beautiful set straddling the traditions of the Swing Era with the newer stylings of the Modern period was a wonderful start to Louie's career as a leader and a harbinger of all that was to come. Louie Bellson's official website can be found here.