“When there’s that fusion between guys who all feel like playing, when everything’s going down right, and we’re playing his music the way it should be played, then it's the greatest jazz band there is.”That’s the case here.
Concert recordings of the Ellington band at times disappoint. The codified solos, the codified between-tunes patter, the lengthy (and dreaded) medley of hits: a sameness can set in. And yet live recordings are crucial to the Ellington canon: think Fargo 1940, Newport 1956. The only complete Ellington performance of Black, Brown and Beige available was recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1943. The best performances of Suite Thursday and A Tone Parallel to Harlem are those preserved in recordings of 1963 Paris concerts. And the last official Ellington recording is of a concert performance: Eastbourne, England, December 1, 1973.
Rotterdam 1969 (recorded November 7, 1969, during a month-long European tour) is in many respects a great concert recording, with inspired musicianship and excellent sound quality. The instrumentation is a bit unusual: the band was trumpet-heavy but short on trombones, with Norris Turney sitting in with the section (and sometimes serving as a relief alto for an ailing Johnny Hodges). The late ’60s brought the Ellington band significant losses: Ellington’s writing and arranging companion Billy Strayhorn died in 1967; Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet and tenor) left in 1968; Buster Cooper (trombone) left in 1969. But the band was still rich in distinctive soloists: we hear from each member of the reed section (and Turney), from Cat Anderson, Lawrence Brown, and Cootie Williams; from Victor Gaskin and Rufus Jones; from Ellington (of course) and Wild Bill Davis. Other losses were to come: Brown would leave in January 1970, and the greatest blow came in May 1970, with the death of Hodges.
The concert begins and ends in slightly ragged fashion: a few bars of “Take the ‘A’ Train” crossed with “C Jam Blues” at the beginning, a few uncertain bars of “Satin Doll” at the end. But as “C Jam Blues” falls into place, with solos by Cootie Williams, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown, and Russell Procope, it’s clear that this band has come to play. I can imagine Harry Carney, at the far end of the reed section, pumping out the tempo with his left leg, as he so often did in concert. The piano sound on “Kinda Dukish” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” (“Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the “A” Train,’” as Ellington would always announce) is especially percussive, and the band’s performance of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (a tune Ellington first recorded in 1931) is the most driven I’ve heard.
As in any Ellington concert, there are tunes that showcase individual musicians. No ballads for Paul Gonsalves on this night: he solos at a frantic tempo on “Up Jump” and ends with a delirious cadenza. He and Harold Ashby and Norris Turney engage in a three-tenor battle on “In Triplicate” (and for three or four seconds their collective improvising foreshadows the avant-gardism of the World Saxophone Quartet). Cat Anderson sets off high-note fireworks on “El Gato”; Rufus Jones has a brief feature on “Come Off the Veldt.” Wild Bill Davis, who created the famous “one more time” arrangement of “April in Paris” for Count Basie, does “Satin Doll” in the same manner. Johnny Hodges gets the most solo time: “Black Butterfly” is a sinuous 1936 tune in which the alto has at times the breathiness of a flute; “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “R. T. M.” are exercises in establishing a deep sense of swing. It’s all Johnny Hodges being Johnny Hodges — beyond category, to borrow an Ellington term of praise.
And there are medleys. The first is a delight. It begins with a bit of “Caravan,” followed by a long “Mood Indigo” with just Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney (bass clarinet), Russell Procope (clarinet), and the rhythm section. How poignant to hear Brown, a most urbane trombonist, pick up a plunger mute and take on the role of his one-time section mate Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton as growl specialist. The band returns for “Sophisticated Lady,” a chance for Carney to demonstrate the wonders of circular breathing as he sustains a note on his baritone for nearly a minute. The second medley is a showcase for the singer Tony Watkins, and it’s a reminder that Ellington aimed to please all sorts of audiences, including those who might enjoy lyrics about "makin’ that love scene." I have often found Ellington’s choices in male singers puzzling, and Watkins’s performances here leave me puzzled still.
The great highlight of this recording is “La Plus Belle Africaine,” which Ellington wrote for the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal — “after,” as he points out, “writing African music for thirty-five years.” This piece always puts me in mind of “Ad Lib on Nippon” from The Far East Suite (1967): each piece has a long introductory section for piano and bass, after which a new theme begins and a member of the reed section takes on a solo role. Ellington’s piano is especially inventive in this “La Plus Belle Africaine,” sounding sometimes like a pizzicato violin, sometimes like a drum against Victor Gaskin’s bowed bass. And then Harry Carney enters on baritone, with a massive sound that suggests canyons, or cathedrals, or both. (In forty-seven years with the Ellington band, “La Plus Belle Africaine” was his greatest moment.) The piece ends by returning to the piano and bass, now with an element of call and response: Ellington and Gaskin playing a phrase, the audience replying by snapping fingers. The piece ends with a snap: in other words, the audience gets the last note, in a moment that’s witty, elegant, and moving.
First The Conny Plank Session , and now Rotterdam 1969 . How many more later-period Ellington performances remain undiscovered? There’s at least one more from Rotterdam: Storyville hopes to release a quartet session recorded after this concert, with Ellington, Davis, Gaskin, and Jones.
Thanks to Storyville for a review copy of this recording, which will be released on April 1.
Take The “A” Train/C Jam Blues : Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ in Rhythm : Take The "A" Train : Up Jump : La Plus Belle Africaine : Come Off the Veldt : El Gato : Black Butterfly : Things Ain’t What They Used To Be : Don’t Get Around Much Anymore : Medley: Caravan/Mood Indigo/Sophisticated Lady : Medley: Making That Scene/It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing/Be Cool And Groovy For Me : Satin Doll : R. T. M. : In Triplicate/Satin Doll
Cat Anderson, Benny Bailey, Mercer Ellington, Ambrose Jackson, Cootie Williams, Nelson Williams, trumpets
Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, trombones
Harold Ashby, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Norris Turney, reeds
Duke Ellington, piano; Wild Bill Davis, organ; Victor Gaskin, bass; Rufus Jones, drums; Tony Watkins, vocals
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)
Rotterdam 1969 (Storyville Records)
[Bjarne Busk’s excellent liner notes and Ken Vail’s Duke’s Diary, Part Two (2002) are my sources for the dates in the second paragraph.]