Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris was the final album Duke Ellington made under his contract with Columbia Records.  Ellington was, reportedly, increasingly dissatisfied with the company. This particular album, in fact, took six months to complete – between January and June, 1962. Ellington was simultaneously working on his Featuring Paul Gonsalves album at Fantasy and squirreling away recordings in his own private stockpile, too.

It’s easy to look at the somewhat indifferent cover art, listen to the rather middle-of-the-road content of the album and conclude that this particular project was the casualty of the shifting pop market as record companies lost confidence in ‘adult pop’ and went chasing The Beatles and the new demographic.

But look again. It’s easy to imagine, rather, twin impulses behind this particular collection.

Firstly, Ellington’s general dissatisfaction with the way things had turned out over his film project, Paris Blues. Unlike his previous, much heralded, film score, Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington’s work on the 1961 motion picture Paris Blues was not celebrated by a release of the music on album from Ellington’s ‘house’ label. A soundtrack did appear on MGM. Perhaps it was because of the involvement of Louis Armstrong no longer signed to the label, an album on Columbia was not possible.

As it is, much of the music from Paris Blues was not released. The recent album French Touch from Laurent Mignard’s superb Duke Orchestra included some of that unreleased music. 

Perhaps in compensation, a couple of numbers – Wild Man and Battle Royal – Ellington himself featured on the Columbia album he made with Count Basie and his Orchestra. Ellington also ensured there was a collaboration with Louis Armstrong in the studio, too, in the famous couple of albums they recorded for Roulette. And finally, Midnight in Paris allowed the bandleader to put out an album on Columbia with a Parisian theme and which included his own compositions Paris Blues and Guitar Amour.

And the second impulse is Billy Strayhorn. Any surface artistic frustrations Ellington was feeling were nothing compared to the deep river of Strayhorn’s love affair with the City of Light. And this is Billy Strayhorn’s album.

The title track (originally intended for the Basie album), Under Paris Skies, My Heart Sings (a feature for Joya Sherrill back in the day), Comme-Ci, Comme-Ca, Speak to Me of Love, I Wish You Love (Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet is sublime), River Seine, Petite Waltz and No Regrets were all arranged by Strayhorn. It is Strayhorn’s touch on piano through several of the tracks, too. Twelve months earlier, whilst in Paris with Ellington to work on the score for the film, Billy had recorded an album of his own compositions at the Barclay Studios in the city. Now, back home in New York, Strayhorn was the principal architect behind this new Parisian themed collection. And what pastel shades he created, what a rich and varied tapestry is woven throughout the thirteen selections.

The album has never been released on compact disc in the USA – and appeared only fleetingly in a very small print run in – appropriately enough – France.

Here, then, for your listening pleasure, is Midnight in Paris.

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