Sunday, 31 May 2015

Conny Plank Update...

Latest update from the Grönland Records site, re: The Conny Plank Sessions issue on CD and vinyl, 10 July...
Duke Ellington’s musical works are seemingly well documented; the likelihood of finding a good, unreleased Duke Ellington recording is slight at best.
When Grönland Records called and told me they had found exactly that in Conny Plank’s estate and asked me if I wanted to give it a listen, I felt pretty honored, and excited. The music of Duke Ellington is – in my worldview – to jazz what Bach’s oeuvre is to classical music: THE great benchmark, or – to raise it up onto an even higher pedestal – the Old Testament, the alpha and omega. With both Bach and Ellington, you can sit down at a piano simply to go through it building chords and something great always happens. This music is so rich, and it is virtually indestructible.
I listened to the recordings for the first time in Grönland Records’ offices. One session, two songs: three takes each of “Alerado” and “Afrique.”
They weren’t just alternate takes, like you often get on reissues of jazz classics; you can really hear Ellington working. He’s not just looking for the best take to get something clearly defined, he’s experimenting.
The tempi change, solo instruments are switched around, and, on the last take of “Afrique,” you can even hear soprano vocals.
“Alerado” is a straightforward swing number, it features Wild Bill Davis on the organ, and, most notably, Cat Anderson on the trumpet, who provide a foundation for striking concepts of sonority and solo performance. The musical approach to “Afrique” is freer and more avant-garde; the foundation of the piece is a tom-tom based beat that is sustained throughout and layered with improvisations and arranged segments.
In addition to the musical aspects, this recording also documents a special moment: an American jazz legend in the twilight of his life encounters a young sound engineer and producer who is preparing to give pop a new sound – now that’s exciting, isn’t it?
I knew who Ellington was, but – as I must shamefully admit – I didn’t know anything about Conny Plank. To be more precise, I knew Conny’s work, but I didn’t know it had anything to do with him: Kraftwerk, Eurythmics, Ultravox, D.A.F. Although I grew up with 1980s synthpop… but I wasn’t aware of how important Conny was to that whole scene. The concept of the producer as a first-rate star wasn’t really a viable possibility until Rick Rubin showed up. Although Conny carried the weight to stand front and center, it seems highly improbable – based on everything I now know about him – that he ever would’ve wanted that. He exemplified the Prussian maxim mehr Sein als Schein [“be it, don’t flaunt it”].
That encounter is also the heart of an important Plank family narrative. The German Wikipedia entry on Conny Plank claims that Wolfgang Hirschmann passed on responsibility for the recording to Conny. Wolfgang Hirschmann was a sound engineer and longtime head of the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) big band. I talked to Mr. Hirschmann on the phone. He told me he knew nothing of these recordings and that he thought Conny was already in Hamburg at that time. There was even brief speculation that Justus Liebich may have done the recordings (he worked in Rhenus Studio at the time).
Mr. Liebich was kind enough to examine the master – the recording is Conny’s.
So that is certain. There is certainty about the location: Rhenus Studio in Cologne. The date is unclear.
Wikipedia mentions April 27, 1970, the date on the tapes themselves and the Ellingtonia list July 9, 1970 as the date Ellingtonia. The circumstances are also unclear: who, for example, is the female vocalist singing on the third take of “Afrique”? Stephan Plank even surmised that it was his mother, Mr. Hirschmann speculated that it may have been a Scandinavian lover of Ellington’s… The myths and legends abound.
Stephan Plank recalls his mother telling the story of that recording session as follows: Duke Ellington was looking for a place to rehearse in Cologne, Conny asked the owner of Rhenus Studio if he would let him use the premises, and politely asked Duke if he would allow him to do a no-frills recording of the rehearsals with matched stereo mics. This version of the story appeared plausible after the first digitization of the original tape. It lacked high tones, so it sounded “rehearsal roomy” – however, Ingo Krauss suspected that this sound had nothing to do with the recording, but with a poorly adjusted tape recorder. Ingo worked as head sound engineer in Conny Plank’s studio in Wolperath after his death, and his hunch was correct. He digitized the recording again himself, and his version is considerably more vibrant.
Further research revealed that two takes had already been released on CD. Both of those releases were more severely mastered; Ingo’s version, on the other hand, is left in a natural state.
Ingo Krauss heard the story of the recording from Christa Plank’s perspective as well. Her version is as follows: Ellington had himself paid to rent out Rhenus Studio for a “stockpile” session, i.e. to make recordings meant for use at a later, yet to be determined, date – and he hired Conny as his sound man.
However, the crux of this story is the same in both cases. Duke listened to the takes and praised Conny’s work. Conny admired Ellington and received recognition from the right person at the right time. Influence and recognition – it was a stroke of luck.
That was tantamount to being knighted and would be enough for a nice story in itself, but Ingo’s version contains an additional tidbit.
Conny was fascinated by how great the difference in tone was between his prior studio work and those takes; the Ellington big band was delivering something totally different, something better than he was accustomed to. It resulted in a recording that even Conny could be happy with. This session seems to have given an important impulse to his work, independent of the praise he received from the master.
This casts the bon mot often attributed to Conny that “every band gets the sound it deserves” in a different light; it no longer comes across as an arrogant remark, but as a clear conception of a simple fact: one can only produce what’s there – if the performance isn’t any good, technology won’t help either. So, for him, it was a moment of realization and revelation.
And ensuring that the performance was spot-on was one of Conny’s great talents. Independently of one another, artists he later produced repeatedly described how
vital his kindheartedness, tranquility and circumspection were to producing successful recordings.
And he was prepared to work for that. The Scorpions, whose first album was produced by Conny, relate how he even got in front of the band and danced!
On the topic of dancing… Duke Ellington had a habit of ending his concerts with a short lesson about how to snap one’s fingers if you wanted to be “cool.” (Duke Ellington Copenhagen 1969)
Making the claim that the encounter between Ellington and Plank was what later made Kraftwerk possible would be totally overstated, but the notion that, in that moment, something of the “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” spirit was conveyed to Conny, and that it helped free him and loosen him up enough to stand undaunted in front of a band and dance is just too wonderful and lends these recordings even more radiance. I wonder if this story will soon be further embellished to mystical proportions…

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Art, if you like...

Further to my post on Clark Terry's stay in Paris and the music he made there (which you can find here ), following finally the chance to sit down last night and view the film Si le vent te fait peur, I discovered a web site devoted to the film's director  Emile Degelin here. The DVD I watched contained also Degelin's short film from the same period, Sirènes and a fascinating documentary, including an interview with Degelin, still with us, at 88 years old.

This DVD edition is available here.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Outside the tent

Table tent from Duke Ellington's early 1940s orchestra. Appears to be from a club performance. Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Ivie Anderson and others listed with songs performed. Ellington signature in pencil on exterior.
8 1/2" long by 5 1/2" wide unfolded.
Cream colored with discoloration.
See photos.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Seven Ages of Duke

The Seven Ages of Duke

Here’s my handy cut-out and keep guide to the various stages of Duke’s career. It is, of course, utterly ridiculous to try to reduce the work of a genius in this way and it’s true that if you listened to a recording made in 1923, you would evince the same mind at work behind a recording made in 1973 – but this is offered just in the spirit of fun as a starting place for further exploration if you are new to Duke…

The Standards

From the late twenties to the mid-thirties, this is the period those songs most associated with Ellington’s name were written, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, In A Sentimental Mood, etc. How they were written and by whom – well read Terry Teachout’s ungracious biography for a cynical and over-simplified account of that. Suffice it to say, the truth – like Prospero’s sea-change – is altogether something more rich and strange than that.

The Blue Period

Mid- to late-30s. I reckon this is the period of Ellington’s music which drew Billy Strayhorn, in particular, towards the flame. British composer Constant Lambert drew a direct line between the music of Ellington and that of Delius in particular – but also Ravel and Debussy. It was that Impressionist aspect of Ellington’s music the classically-trained Strayhorn took up and ran with so brilliantly in the forties and fifties.

The Swing Era

Talking of Billy Strayhorn, he was a good friend and mentor to Bill Finegan (his mother, also, called him Bill), chief arranger for Glenn Miller. In that fastidious reed sound, the quotation from other musical sources, the complexity of the arrangements, you can hear Strayhorn’s tutelage. Anyway, the period of Miller’s great commercial success coincided perfectly with the the era of what many consider to be the greatest incarnation of Ellington’s band, the Blanton-Webster band named for revolutionary bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Jack the Bear, Ko Ko, Sepia Panorama and Strayhorn’s Take The ‘A’ Train all date from this period when ‘jazz’ and popular taste coincided to incendiary effect.

The Suites

Beginning with Black, Brown and Beige in 1943, a ‘tone parallel’ as Ellington called it to the history of the black American, the mid-to late forties saw a whole series of longer form pieces – The Perfume Suite, The Deep South Suite, New World A-Comin', The Symphomaniac, The Tattooed Bride as Ellington and Strayhorn stretched their wings.

Water water everywhere, nor any drop...

They were hard times for the big bands as the flame of the Swing Era guttered and all but burnt out in the early fifties. Ellington lost key men – Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges for a while – Tricky Sam Nanton, the plunger trombonist and Ellington’s drumming man from the beginning, Sonny Greer. The replacements – Louie Bellson, Willie Smith were brilliant technicians but I don’t think had the soul of the originals. If Ellington’s band ever had a tendency to sound like all the other big bands, then this was the period that happened. The low point must have been playing for the swimmers at Blly Rose’s Aquacade.

The Renaissance

Hodges and Strayhorn returned. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s barnstorming twenty-seven choruses at Newport 1956 saw the Ellington band renew itself in the public consciousness. Classic albums – the Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, Anatomy of a Murder et al – followed. Ellington was back and roaring across all six continents.

The Dissolution

Even Ellington could not defy gravity forever. Billy Strayhorn was lost to cancer in 1967, Johnny Hodges died in 1970. The old man kept going but the road was taking its toll. Don’t think that even as the band began to break up there weren’t more than moments of brilliance and beauty, however – The New Orleans Suite, The Latin American Suite. Ellington was performing, making, writing music to the last which came on 24, May, 1974.  The rest is silence...

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Duke Ellington Indigos on Limited Edition Gold CD from Impex Records 

Contains the Complete Stereo Album Plus 8 Bonus Tracks!

All Tracks Remastered from the Analog Master Tapes / Original Stereo Tracks by Kevin Gray / Monaural Bonus Tracks by Mark Wilder

Duke Ellington and his all-star ensemble lay back on this beautiful set of swinging, romantic ballads now available for the first time on limited edition 24K Gold CD from Impex Records. In addition to the complete 1958 stereo album (remastered from the analog master tapes by Kevin Gray) this edition also includes eight bonus tracks including alternate takes, a track from the monaural album and unreleased recordings. The monaural bonus tracks were remastered by Mark Wilder

Ellington was often imitated, never equaled. There's a clear "blue mood" at work in these sessions and Kevin Gray's mastering brings out a nocturnal mood, while keeping things warm and mellow. A deep and wide soundstage, mellifluous lows and crystalline highs make Indigos a perfect accompaniment to your late night listening. The sophisticated 9-song affair features definitive readings of such jazz standards as "Mood Indigo," "Autumn Leaves" and "Prelude To a Kiss" among others.

Deluxe hard cover book packaging with accompanying booklet which comes complete with archival photographs and notes. 

Duke Ellington (piano)
Johnny Hodges / Harry Carney / Russell Procope / Jimmy Hamilton / Paul Gonsalves (saxophone)
Ray Nance / "Cat" Anderson / "Shorty" Baker / Clark Terry / Willie Cook (trumpets)
John Sanders / Britt Woodman / Quentin Jackson (trombones)
Jimmy Wood (bass)
Sam Woodyard (drums)

• 24k Gold CD from Impex Records
• Contains the complete stereo album plus 8 bonus tracks
• All tracks remastered from the analog master tapes
- original stereo tracks by Kevin Gray
- Monaural bonus tracks by Mark Wilder
• Deluxe hard cover book packaging with booklet, archival photographs & notes

Duke Ellington Indigos Track Listing: 

1. Solitude
2. Where or When 
3. Mood Indigo
4. Autumn Leaves
5. The Sky Fell Down
6. Prelude To a Kiss
7. Willow Weep For Me
8. Tenderly
9. Dancing In the Dark 

Bonus Tracks TBA