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.

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