Friday, January 27, 2006

Ellington for beginners

When I'm buying CDs, I sometimes think how lucky I am to have begun listening to Duke Ellington when I did -- about thirty years ago (though alas I caught on only after his death). Back in the day, a typical Sam Goody's held LPs from all eras of Ellington's career -- from the earliest 1924 recordings to 1940s radio broadcasts (releases overseen by Mel Tormé!) to all manner of concert and studio performances. Best of all was the Integrale series from France, a chronological trek through Ellington's RCA work, with alternate takes no less. The Integrale releases of Ellington's 1940-41 recordings are still my favorite versions -- no CD version I've heard comes close to their sound quality. I can still remember the huge (at the time) dent those LPs made in my teenaged finances.

I'd hate to be approaching Ellington's music as a beginner in 2006. The average "books and music" store offers a real mish-mash, as my dad would call it -- one-off concerts of familiar retreads, unreleased studio recordings (great for me, but not a place to start), and compilations cobbled together to make a cynical buck. A further problem: the major-label reissues of Ellington's older recordings often feature horrific sound quality.

So where does one begin? The Ellington disc in the Ken Burns' Jazz series is a decent sampler, though at least four of its twenty selections are somewhat dubious. And its effort to span most of Ellington's career -- with a little bit of this and a little bit of that -- fails to satisfy. For me, there is one best place to start listening to Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert, a double-album released on Atlantic in 1973 and recently re-released on the Collectables label as a 2-CD set with additional material, all of it recorded in concert, in Paris (and elsewhere?), in 1963. The original LPs are among my most-played Ellington recordings.

The 1963 band is one of the best Ellington led. The saxophone section has the classic line-up from Ellington's later years: Harry Carney (on baritone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, and who started with Ellington in 1927), Johnny Hodges (alto, who first came on board in 1928), Russell Procope (another mainstay, on alto and clarinet), Jimmy Hamilton (ditto, on tenor and clarinet), and Paul Gonsalves (then and now a sadly undervalued tenor).The trumpet section features Cootie Williams (who first signed on in 1929), Ray Nance (on cornet and violin, and who took Williams' chair in 1940, when Williams left to join Benny Goodman), Cat Anderson (Ellington's high-note specialist), and Roy Burrowes. Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, and Chuck Connors are the trombones, with Brown (who first joined in 1932) another recently re-enlisted veteran. Ernie Shepard is probably the strongest bassist from the Ellington band's later years, and Sam Woodyard is second only to Sonny Greer among Ellington's drummers. The band is inspired, and very well recorded, even down to Ellington's claps and grunted cues and the occasional bits of dialogue between musicians on the bandstand.

The performances collected on these CDs are an excellent sampler of Ellingtonia. There's Ellington's cubist version of stride piano on "Kinda Dukish," which leads into "Rockin' in Rhythm," with Harry Carney reprising his original (1931) clarinet solo. But there's nothing antique about this performance, which swings like mad. Three features for Johnny Hodges follow: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "The Star-Crossed Lovers" (from the Ellington-Strayhorn Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder), and "All of Me." Hodges' alto was never more extraordinary than on "The Star-Crossed Lovers," a performance of serene beauty and discipline. "Theme from The Asphalt Jungle," with virtuoso passages for the sax section, closes out what used to be called Side One.

Side Two begins with two features for Cootie Williams, "Concerto for Cootie" (a 1940 classic) and "Tutti for Cootie," Williams making up in ferocity what he's lost in speed. The remainder of the side is an extended composition in four parts, Suite Thursday, inspired by John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday. This live version is a far more exciting performance than the one studio version I've heard. Suite Thursday is held together by an interval of a descending minor sixth (thank you, Elaine), which figures prominently in three of its four parts. Highlights here are "Zweet Zurzday," Ellington-Strayhorn at their most elegant, and "Lay-By," a blues for Ray Nance's violin (Duke exhorts him to "Come on down" as his solo builds in intensity).

Side Three begins with a showpiece version of "Perdido," starting out with a boppish line for the two tenors, followed by "The Eighth Veil," "Rose of the Rio Grande," and "Cop Out" (features for Cat Anderson, Lawrence Brown, and Paul Gonsalves), and "Bula," a latter-day piece of "jungle music," which Ellington describes as a "gutbucket bolero" -- which indeed it is.

And Side Four: "Jam with Sam" gives us Duke calling the roll of his soloists (Paul Gonsalves is said to be from "Newport, Rhode Island," in homage to his tenor solo at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival). It's always fascinating to hear Ellington addressing an audience, full of charm and irony and wit, and never exactly straightforward. "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" follows, a train piece that, appropriated, became the hit "Night Train." And finally, "A Tone Parallel to Harlem," my favorite among Ellington's extended compositions, a series of vivid musical impressions -- Sunday morning churchgoing, a chorus line, a "chic chick" stopping traffic, a funeral, a civil rights protest. This recording of "Harlem" is the best one I know.

The previous CD release of The Great Paris Concert included additional contemporaneous live performances (previously available on a Columbia Special Products Greatest Hits LP), and I'm happy to see that they're still here. Some of the material is fairly pedestrian -- "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Pyramid," and "Satin Doll." "Do Nothing" and "The Blues" (from Black, Brown, and Beige), both featuring Milt Grayson, hint at Ellington's idiosyncratic taste in male vocalists. But two of the extra tracks are, simply, great. A long medley of "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Creole Love Call," and "The Mooche" has moments of almost frightening power, and an ending that puts me in mind of The Rite of Spring. It adds the one element that's missing from the rest of The Great Paris Concert -- the late-20s "jungle music" that gave Ellington's early band its signature sound. The other crucial track is "Echoes of Harlem," a Cootie Williams feature from 1936. "Old man now, man -- can't play all them fast numbers -- out of air," Williams says as he steps up to the microphone. With piano, bass, and drums for a backdrop, he delivers a trumpet solo of astonishing intensity and beauty.

That's all of it: many of the greatest Ellington soloists, two extended pieces, and a repertoire that ranges from the late 1920s to 1963. And the excitement of a live recording without "the medley" -- the parade of a dozen or more hits that is the low point of many live Ellington recordings (though a handy device to please audiences and get the requisite hits out of the way). The Great Paris Concert is where I'd start: there's no better way to enter the world of Duke Ellington.

[Update, August 29, 2006: A reader has asked whether I can confirm that the additional performances on the earlier CD release appear on the Collectables reissue. I can't — having discovered, as this reader did, that online track listings don't include them. It's puzzling, because I did check when I wrote this post in January. My best guess is that what I found back then was the track listing from the previous CDs, simply cut-and-pasted into a page for the new ones.

Amazon does though list the previous CD reissue of The Great Paris Concert as still available from various sellers, most with reasonable prices.]

[Update, April 19, 2008: The earlier Great Paris Concert with additional material (on Atlantic UK) is again available from Amazon from the link just above, as a 2-CD set or (save for "A Tone Parallel to Harlem") MP3s. Thanks to Peter Hines for sharing this news in a comment.]

comments: 10

TRH said...

thanks for the wonderful guided tour through this disc -- you just sold another copy of the cd.

Eustace Bright said...

Thanks for this guide.

Coincidentally, I posted recently on my own blog that I was looking for advice in where to start while looking to begin experiencing jazz. I'm one of those unfortunate few who are beginning to listen in "2005."

What a timely post.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, guys.

Joseph, if you want some more suggestions --

Louis Amrstrong, Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (JSP, not CBS Sony, 4 cds for about $30)
Jelly Roll Morton, RCA's one-cd sampler
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Live at Town Hall (newly discovered, tremendously exciting)
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (one of the three records everyone should own, according to me)
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um.

These will give you a good strong sampling of jazz possibilities (with a lot, granted, left out).

Michael Leddy said...

I'm mortified to have mistyped A-r-m-s-t-r-o-n-g.

And by the way, Joseph, don't waste $$ on the cd/dvd dual-disc of Kind of Blue. It's not worth it (unless you really have $$ to burn).

Eustace Bright said...

Thank you kindly!

gautam chintamani said...

great! will keep coming back.

Peter Hines said...

Hi, it's now 2008. Firstly, I'd like to thank you for your post. I'm also new to the whole purchasing Ellington tangle. But why I'm commenting is to point out that the older, more extensive version of The Great Paris Concert is available again at Amazon on CD. Also as an mp3 download. The link is the same one ("previous CD reissue") that you gave in the Update at the end of your article back in 2006. Cheers, Peter.

Michael Leddy said...

Peter, this is welcome news. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

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Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Anon.