Duke Ellington

23. Ella at Duke's Place

EllaDuke1Record: Ella at Duke's Place
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
Released: Verve Records, 1965

This month Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the top 200 singers of all time. If we put aside the foolishness of such an endeavor and forgive the authors for the fact that they're actually in the business of generating clicks and comments and subscriptions, we must admit that it would be a fun activity to crack open some beers with a few friends and take turns linking your phones to a bluetooth speaker on the table as you make your case for one singer or another. Do you prefer Bono or Bruce? Mariah or Whitney? John, Paul, George, or Ringo?

But lists like these exist only to spark debate. So here's my quibble with this particular list. When I first clicked on the link, I went straight to number one (Aretha Franklin, if you must know), and scrolled backwards looking for one name in particular, fully expecting to find it in the top ten. Or at least the top twenty. Maybe the top thirty or forty? But it wasn't until I got to #45 that I found the name I was looking for -- Ella Fitzgerald.

(Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. When the magazine produced a top 100 back in 2008, Ella didn't even make the list. Also of note, Mariah Carey jumped from #79 in 2008 to #5 this year, and Whitney Houston climbed from #34 to #2. It's not an exact science, apparently.)

The thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she's unlike any singer you'll ever hear. I don't want to diminish the work of modern musicians like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, brilliant artists in their own right, but Lady Ella's career spanned more than six decades, or roughly the combined age of those two ingenues. 

But it's Ella's versatility, not just her longevity, that truly sets her apart. This collaboration with Duke Ellington highlights everything she can do. As the record opens with "Something to Live For," the first track on what's called "The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side" of the record, Ella hits the listener with a line as syrupy smooth as anything Billie Holiday might sing:

I have almost everything a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.
I want something to live for...

It's a classic standard from composer Billy Strayhorn (though Ellington gets a credit as well), but Ella makes it her own, putting her soul into every syllable of a song she'd one day name as her favorite. From there she makes her way through four other ballads, including "I Like the Sunrise," a hopeful Ellington tune commissioned for a 1947 celebration marking the centennial of Liberia's independence.

All of it's thoroughly gorgeous, but it's the flip side, "The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" that I can't get enough of. The opening track, "Imagine My Frustration," teeters between blues and something close to rock and roll, and the energy only seems to build as the record spins towards the closing song.

Remember the versatility I mentioned? Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, opens the record with a song that evokes a lounge singer on stage, perhaps leaning forlornly against a piano with cigarette smoke gently spiraling through the single beam of a spotlight. And she finishes with another Ellington tune, "Cotton Tail," a high-tempo vehicle for Ella to unleash her trademark scatting, a vocal styling in which she leaves lyrics behind and allows her voice to become an instrument alongside the horns in Ellington's band. 

And it's truly amazing. If improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz performance, Ella is one of the few vocalists to fully embrace the possibility of vocal improvisation. This track allows her to have a call-and-response conversation with Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, with each artist laying down a bar or two before listening to an echo from the other. (Take a look at this amazing video of a live performance recorded just a few months after the studio recording. Ella and Paul trade licks side by side at the front of the stage for more than two glorious minutes.) 

Fifty-seven years later "Cotton Tail" is mind-blowing, but the reaction in the moment was no different. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, "When the final tape was played back, the orchestra and everyone else present burst into applause. Grinning in happy embarrassment, Ella said, 'Aw, you're just saying that because you are in a hurry to get out of here!' But I suspect she knew, just as we all did, that nothing could top the inspiration of this magnificent take."

Six decades later, nothing does.

EllaDuke3

Side 1
"The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side"
1. Something to Live For
2. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
3. Passion Flower
4. I Like the Sunrise
5. Azure

Side 2
"The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side"
1. Imagine My Frustration
2. Duke's Place
3. Brownskin Gal in the Calico Gown
4. What Am I Here For?
5. Cotton Tail

EllaDuke2


21. Francis A. & Edward K.

FASEKE1Record: Francis A. & Edward K.
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington
Released: Reprise Records, 1968

The first thing I noticed about this record when I pulled it out is that it's almost pristine. It was released in 1968, so it's likely one of the last records my father ever bought and was maybe played only a handful of times. The corners of the album jacket are crisp, the vinyl hasn't a single scratch. [Editor's note: I just found on the last track of Side 2.]

Before I even set the record on the turntable, I checked out the liner notes on the back of the jacket. I've written about this before, but it bears repeating. Writing about records is a genre in and of itself, and if there were an anthology of these thousand-word essays bound in book form, it would be in my Amazon shopping cart right now. 

What exactly are we doing when we write about music? How do we describe a soaring a trumpet solo or the power of a bass line? Can words do justice to the genius of John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday? Sometimes the authors will try, filling the jacket cover with detailed descriptions of the music inside, writing with technical precision that matches the musicians' skills. They understand that their readers are not casual fans, so they write to that level. In reading notes like these I've learned about how albums have been recorded and how bands have gotten together, but more importantly I've learned the language of music. 

The notes that I prefer, however, are ones like Stan Cornyn wrote for this record. Rather than digging into the music, he focuses instead of the musicians, two legends in their own time, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. With a style that could've been borrowed from Mickey Spillane, Cornyn describes the recording studio in intimate detail as his two main characters enter and prepare to record.

"For the next five minutes, with the thoughtful ceremony of a Sumo wrestler, Ellington arranges his cafeteria of sine qua non's. Across the music stand of his Steinway he lays out his cafeteria: One six pack of Cokes. One pkg. Pall Malls. A Kleenex box. A cafeteria spoon. A one lb. box of C&H cube sugar. One Hilton Hotel's bottle opener (no church key at such a session). Six inches from the left piano leg, a plaid two-gallon ice cooler. Ash tray, aluminum. Quantas Airlines flight bag, towel in. Now he is ready."

It could be the opening paragraph of a mystery novel, but with two suspects like Ellington and Sinatra, the case solves itself. There is no mystery. Ellington settles in at his piano as he leads his usual band, but they generally take a back seat to Sinatra, who does what Sinatra does.

Cornyn catches the moment at the end of the recording session when the two of them reflect on their work. "Elegant record, Francis," says Duke. "Always glad to hear about that kind of carrying on," replies Frank.

Always glad.

FASEKE2

Side 1
Follow Me
Sunny
All I Need Is the Girl
Indian Summer

Side 2
I Like the Sunrise
Yellow Days
Poor Butterfly
Come Back to Me

 


16. Ellington at Newport

Ellington1Record: Ellington at Newport
Artist: Duke Ellington
Released: Columbia Records, 1956

For the second time I find myself writing here about a Duke Ellington performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The first time was Newport 1958, but this record was from two summers earlier, in 1956, a recording that many still see as one of the most important in Ellington's career.

Ellington's performing career spanned from the 1920s until his death in 1974 and included dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of recordings. He is, without question, not only one of the most important and most influential jazz musicians of all time, but one of the greatest American musicians of any genre. Given that, it should be no surprise that his work is well represented in my father's collection.

One way in which jazz differs from more modern genres of music is in the importance of performance. It isn't uncommon today for the most popular artists and bands to eschew touring altogether in the later stages of their careers even as they continue to produce new music in studio sessions. Some bands may develop reputations as being outstanding showmen, but even in those cases the studio work takes precedence. 

For many jazz performers, however, this wasn't the case. As the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival approached, Duke Ellington's career appeared to have been waning. It was his performance on July 7 -- not a stunning new studio album -- that revitalized his career and gave him the momentum to continue for another two decades. This record is ostensibly the documentation of that evening (which stretched into morning), and it eventually became the best selling album of Ellington's career.

Why was performance so important? Jazz is an ephemeral art form, due in part to the improvisational nature of the genre but also to the limitations of vinyl records. With only about twenty-two minutes available on one side, there often wasn't room for longer studio compositions or live performances that stretched beyond those limits. (As a result, the CD era saw an explosion of releases of older material that couldn't have been released in previous formats.)

As alluded to above, this recording isn't completely live as suggested. Columbia Records did indeed record Ellington and his band that evening, but there were problems. Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves apparently played into the wrong microphone for long stretches and was completely inaudible, for example, and some of the crowd noise we hear on the record is artificial.

But when you're discussing a landmark record like this there's no point in quibbling over details of perceived authenticity. George Avakian's rich liner notes ignore all of this and instead focus on the impact of the live performance. His description upends any image the reader might have of a jazz concert, more specifically a jazz audience, in 1956. 

The most important moment is preserved on side two during the fifteen-minute masterpiece "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which featured a lengthy tenor sax solo by Gonsalves. Ellington had told him to blow as long as he felt like blowing, and the result was a near ten-minute solo that brought the house down. We imagine row upon row of dignified listeners, perhaps tapping their toes but nothing more. But reading Avakian's description of the night, it might've been closer to the Rolling Stones at Altamont, if not as tragic.

As Gonsalves continued to wail away, the energy in the audience began to build. "A platinum-blonde girl in a black dress began dancing in one of the boxes (the last place you'd expect that in Newport!) and," writes Avakian, "a moment later somebody else started in another part of the audience." (There's a photo of the blonde on the back of the album and although she was anonymous at the time of the album's release, she was eventually identified as Elaine Anderson. You can read more about her and her recollections of that night here.)

Those dancers, the energy of Gonsalves's long solo, the driving rhythm of Ellington's band, and, no doubt, the lateness of the hour all combined to bring much of the crowd to its feet. They filled the aisles and pushed closer to the stage, at points leading police and festival security to consider shutting the show down. But Ellington, perhaps sensing the magnitude of the moment, would have none of it. The record ends after "Diminuendo and Crescendo," but the band played on into the night. And Ellington played on for another twenty years, thanks to this performance.

Ellington2

Side 1
Festival Junction
Blues to Be There
Newport Up

Side 2
Jeep's Blues
Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue


5. Newport 1958

NewportFrontRecord: Newport 1958
Artist: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

The idea of composing music of any kind is completely magical to me. I can understand DaVinci dipping a brush into his oils and producing the "Mona Lisa" or Dante spinning his Divine Comedy, but how, I ask, can a composer conceive an original work, imagine the different instruments that might contribute to its overall tapestry, and finally bring the entire piece to fruition? People sometimes speak of a hypothetical room full of monkeys and typewriters eventually producing the works of Shakespeare, but we've never heard any speculation about monkeys and pianos. That genius can never be attributed to the hand of chance. Whether it's John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down to write "Eleanor Rigby" or John Coltrane creating "A Love Supreme" or a deaf Beethoven writing his 9th Symphony, there is an element of the divine. It's no wonder the Ancient Greeks spoke of muses inspiring their artists. How else to explain miracles like these?

Duke Ellington is one of these geniuses, a songwriter beyond compare, and this won't be the last time one of his records shows up here. This particular record has an interesting history. The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the oldest and most important gatherings of musical talent in the United States, and the 1958 edition featured dozens of legendary musicians aside from Ellington. Like Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Mahalia Jackson all later issued "live" albums, each titled Newport 1958.

As was common at the time, Ellington's record isn't completely live, even though the album jacket claims that it was "recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival." Ellington and his orchestra did perform all of these songs at Newport, but those live recordings aren't preserved here. Dissatisfied with the performance -- several of these tracks were played for the first time at the festival -- and possibly the limitations of the live audio, Ellington took his band into the studio to record the songs again for the record. Crowd noise from the festival was dubbed in, so perhaps the subtitle on the jacket isn't completely wrong.

This is the story behind the original record from my father's collection, but by the time I was searching for the CD to add to my own, an expanded two-disc version with many of the original live recordings had been released, so that's the one I've always listened to. It was fun to listen to the vinyl this morning, filled mainly with polished versions of the tracks I had heard, but the genius was still there.

NewportBack

Side 1
Just Scratchin' the Surface
El Gato
Happy Reunion
Multicolored Blue
Princess Blue

Side 2
Jass Festival Jazz
Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool
Juniflip
Prima Bara Dubla
Hi Fi Fo Fum