Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A noble duke, in nature...

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival at which the Oscar Peterson Trio’s performance was recorded straddled quite a few weeks. A month or so before the trio’s appearance, the Duke Ellington caravan rolled into town. In many ways, Ellington’s appearance was even more auspicious, resulting as it did in inspiration for his Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder.

Forgive my quoting so extensively from Jack Chambers’ article Bardland: Shakespeare in Ellington’s World but his essay is the definitive word on the subject. In the Canadian magazine Coda in 2005, Mr Chambers wrote:

"Ellington’s inspiration for transliterating Shakespeare into jazz came from a chance encounter, as unexpected in its way as was his fixation on God in his final years. In July 1956, Ellington was booked to play two concerts at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. It did not seem special at the time. From 1956 until 1958, while Louis Applebaum was musical director, the Stratford Festival booked summer jazz and classical concerts as adjuncts to the dramatic offerings. Besides Ellington in 1956, Wilbur de Paris, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet also played evening concerts, spaced out in July and August. In the time-honoured tradition, the jazz musicians played their one- or two-night stands and then hit the road for the next one a day or two away (although Peterson’s performance left a permanent memento in a Verve recording that captured the head-banging competitiveness of his original Trio as no other record had to date). Not Ellington. He played, and then he carried with him for the rest of his days what he had seen and heard all around him in the quiet anglo-celtic town of 20,000 in southwestern Ontario.

"Ellington was often sensitive to the places he played in spite of their profusion. He arrived in Stratford from a resort ballroom in Bala, about 150 miles to the north, played non-consecutive nights on Wednesday and Friday, the 18th and 20th, with concerts on the alternate Thursday and Saturday nights at the Brant Inn in Burlington, just 70 miles east. (The Wednesday performance is preserved Live at the 1957 [sic] Stratford Festival, Music & Arts CD-616 [1989].) Tom Patterson, the soft-spoken newspaperman whose persistence had persuaded the town council to risk a top-flight professional Shakespeare festival on the basis of the coincidence of the colonial namesake (not only Stratford itself, but the River Avon running through it), met Ellington and Harry Carney on their arrival, and was flattered when the Duke asked him to show him around. Ellington stayed in Stratford three days, commuting to the Brant Inn in the middle, and it is worth speculating that he might have altered his lifelong routine by hauling himself out of bed for mid-afternoon matinee performances of Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor on the Festival’s main stage.

"The Shakespeare Festival was (and is) a highbrow spectacle in the bourgeois heartland, and none of it was lost on Ellington. Stratford’s thrust stage, modeled on the Elizabethan Globe, was new not only to Stratford but to the theatre world at large. It added to the excitement of the whole heady venture. Shakespeare had seldom been treated so well. His plays were directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Langham, costumed resplendently by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and acted by a brilliant young company that included Lloyd Bochner, Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. Ellington loved it, so much so that he began finagling to be part of it. He opened his Stratford concerts with a new piece he called Hark the Duke’s Trumpets. The Shakespearean resonance of the title is Ellingtonian licence; it is a fanfare played by trombones, not trumpets (later recorded as Bassment). More important, Ellington told everyone he met in Stratford and in the months that followed that he and Billy Strayhorn were preparing a jazz suite based on Shakespeare for a premiere at the Festival the next summer."

Ellington’s appearance at the Festival Concert Hall, Stratford, Ontario took place, then, less than a fortnight after his barnstorming appearance at Newport.

It may be my imagination, but do I detect a new found confidence in Ellington’s work – and indeed in the entire band’s performance during the set – as a result of their being ‘born again’ just a couple of weeks earlier? Certainly, the stars are all in place that might augur such success. In particular, Billy Strayhorn had returned to his role as Ellington’s constant composing companion and Johnny Hodges, too, had returned to the fold. In his comments during the course of the concert, as a preface to Hodges’ solo on I Got It Bad… the altoist had just returned from his own "exciting adventures leading a band" or words to that effect…

Paul Gonsalves delivers here another tour-de-force along the lines of the Wailing Interval that set Newport alight on an extended version of the band’s theme. It does not have quite the incendiary effect it did at the earlier festival, however. In fact, these rollicking extended solos of Gonsalves had been brewing quite a while, since such an excursion was featured on the original studio recording of the concerto version of A Train some four or five years previously. The boppish Betty Roche vocal is aped, too, by Ray Nance – one of his several party pieces. But the concert proves to be the usual embarrassment of Ellingtonian riches as the band members each exercise their ‘solo responsibilities’. Clark Terry – who blew through the band like a zephyr in the fifties, delivers a modish extemporization on a pianissimo version of Harlem Air Shaft; Harry Carney delineates the contours of Sophisticated Lady; Cat Anderson serves up one of those searing Flamenco-tinged specialities in La Virgen De La Macarena; Jimmy Hamilton’s own composition Clarinet Melodrama (which Duke likens to a western) is delicious as are the obligatti he serves up behind Duke’s recitation of Pretty and the Wolf which he never delivered with more √©lan.

The Japanese pressing of this compact disc (to my ears, a slightly smoother ride than its US counterpart) is very difficult to come by. The re-issue is quite rare, too, but used copies can be had here.

In celebration this month of both Ellington’s and The Swan of Avon’s birthdays, I will post selections soon from a special scrapbook pertaining to Ellington’s Stratford appearances.

In the meantime, the full text of Jack Chambers' article can be read in the bulletin of the Duke Ellington Music Society  here.

A couple of fascinating links for further reading on the Ellington Shakespeare connection which I haven’t yet had time to investigate fully myself may be found here and here.

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