Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Duke Ellington, The Conny Plank Session

[The back cover.]

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. The Conny Plank Session (Grönland, 2015). Total time: 29:21.

The Conny Plank Session is the only Ellington release I know of to be named for a recording engineer. Conny Plank (1940–1987) was an acclaimed producer and engineer who would become known for his work with Brian Eno and and Kraftwerk, among other musicians. I don’t suspect an undiscovered Ellington–Plank affinity: my guess is that Plank just happened to be the engineer in the Cologne studio where Ellington was adding yet another session to the countless sessions that formed the stockpile — music recorded at his expense to test ideas and document work in progress. Suffice it to say that the band sounds great: bright, clear, rich, and well-balanced. The work of the piano player in particular has startling presence.¹

This session — two tunes, three takes each — gives us the Ellington band in July 1970. Or 1970 A. H., After Hodges, the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who had died on May 11. “Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same,” Ellington wrote on that day. Yet the band continued, as ever, as a collection of idiosyncratic voices (who sometimes, it’s true, modeled themselves on earlier Ellingtonians). Wild Bill Davis was on board as organist: he had just appeared to great advantage (along with Hodges) on “Blues for New Orleans,” the opening section of Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. Fred Stone, trumpeter and flugelhornist, had played with Clark Terry-like fleetness on the Suite ’s “Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte.” Norris Turney played a Hodges-like alto and was an important presence in the Suite as a flutist, the first band member to play flute on an Ellington recording (on “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies”).² Davis, Stone, and Turney all have prominent parts in this session.

“Alerado,” by Wild Bill Davis, is the slighter of the two tunes here. It’s named for the record producer Alexandre Rado, who supervised the French RCA Integrale LP series of Ellington reissues. The tune is little more than its attractive chord changes, which evoke (strongly) the bridge of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” and (less specifically) Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke.” Turney (flute, alto), Stone (flugelhorn), and Paul Gonsalves (tenor) solo briefly in what was likely designed as a concert showpiece for Davis.

Ellington never stopped listening: in his last official concert recording (Eastbourne, 1973), he was parodying the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other avant-gardists, giving the audience a taste of “the future” (as he derisively called it) with an atonal explosion that turned into “Basin Street Blues.” “Afrique,” a section of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), is a more genuine engagement with the new: it gives us the band playing on a single chord (B minor, of all things) in a latter-day version of the so-called “jungle music” that established Ellington in the ’20s. (“Chinoiserie,” another section of the Eclipse, is another late engagement with the new: particularly in a 1973 performance that gives us the Ellington band hitting “the one,” the defining element of James Brown’s funk.)

The 1971 “Afrique” (released on LP by Fantasy in 1975) is primarily a vehicle for piano, trombones, and reeds, with Russell Procope (clarinet), Harry Carney (baritone), Gonsalves, and Turney (alto) engaging in call and response. The three 1970 takes are markedly slower and more devoted to exploring the atmosphere established by Rufus Jones’s untiring drumming. They are tremendously exciting music. Trombones, organ, and Gonsalves’s tenor are the key elements here, with Ellington’s piano at its most percussive. The third take is one of the wildest Ellington recordings I’ve heard, with an unidentified singer who evokes Adelaide Hall’s growls (“Creole Love Call”) and Alice Babs’s soaring vocalise (“T. G. T. T.,” from the Second Sacred Concert ). The profane and the sacred, in one voice! I can only wonder what further treasures remain in the stockpile.

Grönland’s presentation of The Conny Plank Session is less than satisfactory. The musicians are identified in nothing more than a line of abbreviations reproduced from W. E. Timner’s Ellingtonia: The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen (2007):

[Got that?]

The line is partly hidden behind the CD spindle, with some of its text barely readable. But for anyone with some prior knowledge and a little time at Google Books, it’s easy enough to put together the band:

Cat Anderson, Mercer Ellington, Fred Stone, Cootie Williams, Nelson Williams, trumpets, with Stone doubling (?) on flugelhorn

Chuck Connors, Malcolm Taylor, Booty Wood, trombones, with Connors on bass trombone

Harold Ashby, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope, Norris Turney, reeds

Duke Ellington, piano; Wild Bill Davis, organ; Joe Benjamin, bass; Rufus Jones, drums
The liner notes identify the brass soloist on “Alerado” as Cat Anderson, but it must be Fred Stone: the instrument is flugelhorn, not trumpet, played with the same facility as on “Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte.” NPR and other sources identify the singer on “Afrique” as Lena Junoff but offer no explanation.

Related listening, via YouTube
“Afrique” (1971)
“Chinoiserie” (1973)
“Creole Love Call” (1927)
“T. G. T. T.” (1968)

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

¹ Why piano player and not pianist ? Because Ellington mock-deprecatingly referred to himself as “our piano player.”

² Harold Minerve would soon play flute and piccolo (and alto). The trombonist Art Baron played recorder in the Third Sacred Concert (1973). I used to write papers this way in grad school, adding little bits of extra detail in endnote after endnote.³

³ But HTML limits superscripts to 1 , 2 , and 3 .

comments: 2

The Crow said...

I have a CD of the New Orleans Suite, which I play whenever I am lonely for the city as I remember it and feeling nostalgic for a life I probably never lived.

Michael Leddy said...

One of the great later Ellington records. I used to play “Second Line” as waking-up music.