November 20, 2012
Fortunately for all of us, there’s no shortage of material by Duke Ellington and his wonderful orchestra. For the newcomer, though, there might almost be too much. Now, if you are a fan, you might well argue, with considerable justification, that there’s no such thing as too much Ellington. But try for a moment to imagine what it must be like for someone coming along today who has yet to encounter this man and his music. Where should a newcomer begin?
At the risk of irritating the many Ellington experts, I have attempted to select just three Ellington albums I regard as unmissable. For me, these three, which have appeared frequently over the years, are exceptional, offering as they do, intriguingly varied glimpses of one of the finest bands ever to grace jazz.
First of the three albums is The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird), which comes from a short but highly productive and creative period in Ellington’s life.
He was of course always productive and creative, but this period, 1940-42, was astonishing even by his own high and prolific standards. Several of the band’s members had already spent long periods as Ellingtonians: Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer; others were relative newcomers, notably Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, whose contributions were of such importance that their names have ever afterwards been appended as identifiers for this brief era. Nothing on this album is weak or wasted, even the alternative versions included here add to our knowledge and understanding of and delight in the band.
But is it the real Duke Ellington?
The second album, At Newport 1956 (Columbia Legacy) marks the turning point in public awareness of the band; that evening designed by an alchemist when everything went right.
Its centerpiece is a roaring Paul Gonsalves solo that bridges the two parts of Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, even if this had the unfortunate consequence of tying the saxophonist to a roof-raising role despite his being one of the most rhapsodic of Ellington’s players (and, No, I haven’t forgotten Webster and Hodges). What this album gives us, is an immensely enjoyable view of the band, ensemble and soloists, in command of music and listeners. (This particular reissue has everything, including studio remakes.)
But is this the real Duke Ellington?
Twice I’ve asked the same, seemingly heretical, question, which stems from a remark made by Johnny Hodges. This is what has led me to question the claim often implied – sometimes explicitly stated – that these two marvelous sets of music really do present archetypal Ellington.
What was that remark? Well, one day, in the early 1960s, in conversation with a friend of mine, Hodges observed, ‘If you never heard Ellington play for dancing, then you never heard Ellington.’
Let’s be clear, this was not a deep discussion, just a casual conversation in the midst of which came this almost throwaway remark; but it is something of a conversation-stopper. Think about this for a moment; if Hodges was right, then almost no one living today really heard Ellington. After all, pretty nearly everyone around today has heard Ellington only on record or in the concert hall. And these are the sources of the two foregoing albums. In the case of The Blanton Webster Band we hear Ellington in the recording studio, bound by the three-minute side and, despite the glories that abound, perhaps affected as were many jazz musicians of the era by the relative austerity of the setting (to say nothing of the time of day, when they perhaps would rather have been . . . well, resting). As for At Newport, this has the band in concert; admittedly not a concert hall, but at a festival, a setting that has some of the same general ambiance, albeit considerably livelier than most.
This is why Fargo 1940 is so special; it is a dance date. Recorded with commendable foresight, by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, and with remarkably good sound considering the time and circumstances and technical shortcomings, this set captures that free floating spirit of an organization that was not only an outstanding jazz band, but was also an exceptional dance band.
Given the date, it is obvious that the band’s personnel is pretty much the same core of musicians as for The Blanton-Webster Band. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of the solos heard are on par with, or sometimes superior to, those on the studio recordings. Yet an indefinable atmosphere hangs over the Fargo dance; it is an ambiance that sparks the soloists and fires the ensemble, bringing out the very best in everyone and making it possible to detect a glimmer of what it was that prompted Hodges to make his remark. Not surprisingly, this exceptional set continues to reappear and in at least one case with additional tracks.
Okay, so my choice of these three superb albums is just my opinion. Ask a hundred other fans of Duke Ellington and the chances are you’ll get very different results. That said, these albums are, I believe, three important and invaluable examples of the Duke Ellington orchestra at its very best; everlasting aural images of a band of musicians who, with extraordinary alchemy, created magical music over many decades.
Any newcomer to Duke Ellington should seek to hear any, preferably all of these albums, and then hopefully add them to his or her collection. If you are not a newcomer then you probably have them already. If you haven’t, you should.
August 7, 2012
One day in the late 1980s, a phone call from Jazz Journal, alerted me to the news that jazz singer Carmen McRae was appearing in London; not only that, she had also agreed to an interview. Was I interested? Of course I was.
I cannot recall exactly when I became captivated by Carmen McRae’s singing, but ever since that moment she has held a very important place in my heart and mind. Why do I hold her in such high regard? This is something that is hard to explain using merely words; easier by far to let the lady herself demonstrate. Take just one example of her art: a track from her album Birds Of A Feather (Verve 589 515-2); the song Skylark, composed by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and here arranged by Ralph Burns. With seemingly effortless ease, Carmen bathes the evocative lyric in the beautifully limpid sound she produces. When singing from the Great American Songbook, she often delivers songs in an almost straight fashion, turning them into jazz performances with occasional, subtly understated touches achievable only by a true jazz singer. In this particular instance, at the end of a phrase, she bends a note that not only makes the song a jazz vocal classic but also serves to send tenor saxophonist Ben Webster soaring majestically into flight for a perfectly-shaped solo. Hear Carmen’s Skylark just once and you know it is a definitive performance, hear it often and you never tire of it and, as implied, even superlatives cannot describe it in words.
So, back to that interview for Jazz Journal. Well, it never happened. As I explained to the magazine’s Editor (back then, Eddie Cook), I was going on a long-planned vacation; hotel booked, airline tickets in my pocket. So maybe next time. Well, there never was a next time. Not too long afterwards, in 1994, Carmen McRae was gone. Do I regret that missed opportunity? Of course I do. Today, some decades later, I cannot remember anything of that vacation. I am certain, though, that had I met Carmen McRae, I would remember every moment.
How do I imagine her? Hard to say; from interviews it is clear that she knew her own mind, had a strong will, and occasional hints emerge that she was not someone to suffer fools gladly. If so, she sounds like someone to respect and admire in whatever she did; because she was also responsible for many of the finest interpretations of popular song, that respect and admiration is re-doubled. I could go on about this outstanding jazz singer, but I won’t – because I cannot begin to match CARMEN McRAE, the definitive website. Dedicated to the artist’s life and work, Joan Merrill has gathered here just about everything anyone could ever want to know – biography, recording history, film and TV appearances, informed comments from songwriters and today’s jazz singers, and much more. For lovers of jazz, jazz singing, jazz singers, this should not be missed.