DUKE ELLINGTON / “Duke and Friends Mixtape”
Sometimes, like an alcoholic way past his limit but who can’t stop himself from taking one more drink, sometimes I find myself stuck on artist and can’t let it go. Duke got me. This is the third week in a row and there is a bunch of important Ellington material I haven’t yet approached. Pray for me. I’m going to do my best to resist doing four weeks in a row but meanwhile I got to have another drink. This time I’ve brung along a bunch of buddies. First up is Duke and Louis Armstrong. The question with such collaborations is always the rhythm section. For the first guest the compromise was to use Ellington compositions with Ellington at the piano but otherwise it’s the Armstrong band. It works admirably. Louis is on his game as a vocalist bringing an element of raw joy to every selection. I am not so smitten with Pops' trumpet because with Ellington’s sophistication beneath him, much of the time Pops’ trumpet sounds dated as though he were playing in one style and Duke in a more contemporary vein. There is none of the sparkle I associate with Armstrong’s unmuted horn, and in fact I think Pops leans on the mute too much and yet, there is no denying that overall the music sounds good. Now, most of us are aware that Louis Armstrong is the fountainhead of American vocal music. In the twenties Pops completely changed everything from inflections and rhythmic emphasis to scatting and improvising on the lyrics. As great as Duke was he didn’t have any vocalist that locked it down equal to the way Ellington's horn players were considered masters of their craft. On the basis of what I heard as I assembled this Mixtape I’m wondering if Duke didn’t have a life-long crush on Ella Fitzgerald. Listen at them, not only is she absolutely sublime on Ellington and Strayhorn compositions, together Ella and the Ellington orchestra are equally impressive on a wide range of material including a bossa nova. Ella had the technical skill and the perfect voice to undertake the sophisticated Ellington repertoire. Ella Fitzgerald was widely considered the absolute queen of jazz vocals and had a devoted hoard of supporters, fans, admirers, and professional followers. Musicians loved to play with her because she could both scat and sing in tune, she had range and she had game—you didn’t want to get into a cutting contest with her. Think about it (especially after you listen to the tracks on this Mixtape) don’t you think she would have made an excellent addition and consort for Ellington’s musical kingdom… yeah, yeah, I know but like I said from the get go, I’m drunk on Ellington and when you’re drunk you think of all kinds of impossible scenarios. The thing about Duke is that he was both personally secure enough and professionally competent enough to play outside of his comfort zone. There is a recording titled Money Jungle. If you listen to it and didn’t know it was Duke you might not ever guess. First off, it’s a trio recording and second the bass player is Charlie Mingus and the drummer is Max Roach. Ok, let’s get the trivia out of the way first. Both Mingus and Max played very briefly with the Ellington orchestra. Max filled in when the drummer was sick or couldn’t make the gig—it was a one-off substitution but it deeply impressed a fledgling drummer who was then a young man just starting out as a professional. The Mingus thing has a tragic/funny back story. Seems Duke had hired Mingus but Mingus and one of the horn players didn’t get along. Shortly after joining the band, the curtain opens and there Mingus is physically boxing his nemesis. Afterwards, or so the story goes, not only did Ellington cue the orchestra to begin playing but backstage Duke had Mingus feeling sorry for embarrassing Duke and grateful that Duke fired him. Duke allegedly told Mingus that so-and-so was an old problem in the band but that he, Mingus, was a new problem and unfortunately Duke had a deficiency, i.e. Duke didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with a new problem so would Mingus mind helping Duke out by resigning. Duke! I’ll drink to that (and I don’t even drink). That said, I’d like to point out that Max is almost deferential in his drumming but Mingus is aggressively out front. At some points, the intros make it sound like this was a Mingus session rather than a collective. Clearly Duke understood what Mingus was up to and Duke is able to insert touches of dissonance where appropriate. By the way, one other trivia note: if you listen closely to some of the piano figures on "Rem Blues" you will hear the basic elements that were reconfigured for "The Feeling Of Jazz" composition that is on the Duke and Trane album. One of the most modern elements of Duke Ellington was his utter mastery of montage, i.e. piecing together desperate fragments to form not only a whole, but also to form something completely different from the source elements. If Duke were eighteen years old in 2010, Duke might be a master DJ/producer creating beats out of the ambient sounds surrounding him. The final friend is John Coltrane. Ok, one more trivia bit: no, Trane didn’t play with the Ellington orchestra but many fans are not aware that Trane started off as an alto player and that Coltrane was a member of the Johnny Hodges band during the period when Mr. Hodges was on hiatus from the Ellington aggregation. With the Coltrane collaboration what was decided was to split the use of drums and bass players, so on some tunes it’s Ellington’s guys and others it’s Trane’s men. Although the album is not a classic there is one cut that is a jazz classic, “In A Sentimental Mood” (with Elvin Jones on drums and Aaron Bell on bass). Indeed, after this album was released, the arrangement became the standard arrangement for what a song that was already a jazz standard. I’ve always had a personal liking for the last track on the Mixtape, “The Feeling of Jazz” (Sam Woodyard on drums and Aaron Bell on bass). Indeed, I also really dig the other two selections: Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” (Sam Woodyard on drums and Aaron Bell on bass) and Duke’s “Angelica” (Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass). You should note that unlike Mingus who went full out almost challenging Duke to play avant garde, Trane is far more conservative in his approach to his collaboration with Duke and, in turn, Duke lays out when Trane really digs on, like on "Angelica." Even though that's an Ellington composition, Trane practically owns the tune. Moreover, check the wonderful cymbal colors Elvin Jones adds instead of the punding tom-toms that is his usual wont. Indeed, an overall assesment would find that the Money Jungle album is much more radical than the collaboration with Trane, who was the leader of the avant garde in 1963 when he recorded with Duke. And, with that, I'm just going to stop. Cold turkey. No mas. See you later. —Kalamu ya Salaam Duke and Friends Mixtape Playlist Great Summit: Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington 01 “Mood Indigo” 02 “Black And Tan Fantasy” 03 “I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good” 04 “I'm Beginning To See The Light” 05 “I'm Just A Lucky So And So” 06 “Azalea” Ella At Duke's Place 07 “I Like The Sunrise” 08 “Imagine My Frustration” 09 “Something To Live For” 10 “What Am I Here For” 11 “Cotton Tail” Ella And Duke At The Cote d'Azur 12 “Mack The Knife” 13 “Lullaby Of Birdland” 14 “So Danco Samba” Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook 15 “Day Dream” 16 “I Didn't Know About You” 17 “I'm Beginning To See The Light” 18 “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” Money Jungle 19 “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)” 20 “Rem Blues” 21 “Caravan” 22 “Money Jungle” Duke Ellington and John Coltrane 23 “In a Sentimental Mood” 24 “My Little Brown Book” 25 “Angelica” 26 “The Feeling of Jazz”
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