Five minutes that will make you love Duke Ellington

A few years ago, Zachary Woolfe, critic and editor of The New York Times, asked a question: what about five minutes would you play for a friend to convince him to fall in love with classical music? And Mozart? Or the violin? Or opera?

Over the course of more than 25 entries, dozens of writers, musicians, critics, scholars and other music lovers attempted to respond, sharing their passions with readers and each other.

Now we’re focusing on jazz – and what better place to start than with Duke Ellington? An unparalleled composer, pianist, and conductor, he arrived in New York from Washington, DC, just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning; soon the Duke Ellington Orchestra had become the soundtrack of an era. He became a black American icon on the national stage and then an ambassador of the best of American culture to the world. Jazz’s status as world music has a lot to do with Ellington: in particular, his skills as a leader, collaborator and spokesperson, who rarely failed to remind his audience, “We love you madly.”

Here are 13 tracks we think will make you love Ellington. Happy listening and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

An underrated part of Ellington’s artistry is his mastery of misdirection. You think you know where the music is going…then you blink and realize Duke took you on a crazy detour. This sleight of hand drives the A-side of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Ellington’s 1937 inverted-arch masterpiece. It’s a blues; What could be simpler ? But Ellington hops and weaves, stretches chords and turns, twists the 12-bar form on itself like an ouroboros, and hurtles through a dizzying array of modulations: five keys in less than three minutes! But the journey isn’t just loud to soft – it’s confusion to clarity. Newport’s 1956 live version is legendary for saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ immortal 27-course ‘wailing interval’, but it’s ‘Diminuendo’ that leads the way.

Mahalia Jackson’s resonant yet winged vocals float masterfully over the expressive string and horn arrangement of “Come Sunday,” Ellington’s ode to the singular day when historically black, Sunday-clad workers could shed sweat and the courage of work: emerging like twinkling butterflies, gathered together to praise the Lord. According to Irving Townsend’s 1958 liner notes for “Black, Brown and Beige,” the album from which it is taken, Jackson “hums an extra chorus as if aware of the power of her performance and wants to let it linger. one more moment”. Of course she knew. “Come Sunday” communicates with crystal clarity Ellington’s admiration for workers and his elegant insistence on unconditional respect.

Here is Johnny Hodges, delivering four minutes of the most seraphic alto saxophone playing ever recorded, on this chestnut from the “Far East Suite” by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This title is more or less a misnomer: almost every piece in the suite has a Middle Eastern inspiration. And Strayhorn – Ellington’s songwriting and arranging partner for more than 25 years – actually wrote “Isfahan” before their visit to this Iranian city in 1963. (Its original title was “Elf.”) It is one of Strayhorn’s classic cascading melodies, and the arrangement is an Ellingtonian ballad at its peak, with its luxuriously dragging tempo and dabs of trombone harmony. As usual, it’s a star member of the band who really does the recording – this time Hodges, cradling each note between his teeth, firm but not too tight, slathering them and giving them all sorts of feel without blurring or obscure anything. It’s a standard, but when was the last time you heard a pianist cover this piece? That’s what Hodges does.

I can’t listen to the first 50 seconds of the opening credits of “Anatomy of a Murder” without seeing shapes: cubist shapes like a Picasso painting, with fragmented sound fragments from the different sections of the band, punctuated by the pattern of pointillist drums. From the opening “wah” of the cup trombone, through the white-hot trumpet bursts, to the mini-cadenza of the saxophone, this piece grips me like a vice. The main body of the melody, a passacaglia of gutbucket blues over which trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and solo piano play, evokes in my mind a sublime sense of foreboding that perfectly sets the mood for the entire film.

Duke Ellington has always had this way of drawing strong emotions from the keys of his piano. On the 1962 version of “Solitude”, with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, Ellington correctly evokes the feeling of isolation through moody, spacious chords reflecting dark and light textures. Where the 1934 original sparked some optimism, this one, from the “Money Jungle” album, sounds darker – headphone music made for the elements. By the time Mingus and Roach appear near the end of the song, Ellington has locked into the upper register of his solo, taking the ambient sound to a bluesy number with light drum brushes and subtle bass. . It was a big victory lap for one of the pioneers of jazz music.

Mingus and Roach accompanied Ellington on the first recording of “Fleurette Africaine”, for “Money Jungle”. Left alone with his reflection in this solo version, Duke’s sway and almost smile evoke longing and memory. He plays with the ghosts of his friends and spares them raw nostalgia. He hesitates as if approaching a sacred altar of sound, then surrenders to his solitude, letting himself be haunted by their absence but not diminished by it. This version is more jagged than the original, as Ellington confronts the missing tones by blurring them with his own. For a man who spent so many years maintaining a large orchestra capable of reproducing the sounds he heard in his head, Ellington seems to find the most solace alone. It’s as if all this time spent in public was in pursuit of this isolated spiral, either as a soloist or with the ghosts of a couple of friends in a garden he invented for them. He’s solo here, but he’s not alone, which would be scary if it wasn’t so beautiful.

“Black, Brown and Beige” sums up the complete orchestration of Ellington’s work. The suffering of black people through the lamentations of trumpeter Rex Stewart. Their struggles through the daydreams of saxophonist Harry Carney. Triumph using the “tom tom” of the drums. Duke called it “a tone parallel to the history of Negroes in America”, dedicated to the Haitians who fought to save Savannah, Georgia, from the British during the Revolutionary War. “I went back to the story of my race and tried to express it in rhythm,” Ellington said. “Before, we had a little something in Africa, ‘something’ that we lost. One day we will find him.

Recorded March 6, 1940 – Ellington’s first recording session with Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone and Jimmy Blanton’s propelling bass completing what I would call the greatest band in jazz history. If Ellington’s work can be reduced to the marriage of the unschooled and the sophisticated, “Ko-Ko” is his finest example: a three-chord minor blues that tightly develops the motif introduced in the first bar through six dissonant, wild and imaginative choirs. , notifying jazz composers and arrangers for decades to come. Modern jazz started here with an explosion.

Ellington’s music has remained open to younger jazz generations. “In a Sentimental Mood”, taken from an album he recorded in 1962 with John Coltrane and the members of his quartet, delves into the ambiguities of a composition first heard in 1935. The piano of Ellington’s opening tiptoes around the chords it implies; Coltrane’s saxophone floats as if the melody is almost too exquisite to disturb. Later, Ellington’s piano solo summons and then dissolves his own notes of 1930s swing, and Coltrane merely teases his own approach to sound sheets before returning to the grace of the original melody. The track is a paragon of mutual respect and shared, subtle exploration.

The happiest music in the world! I’ve had the privilege of conducting this ‘Nutcracker’ sequel a few times, and it always makes me want to have annual gigs to keep playing it every holiday season. With immense admiration for Ellington and Strayhorn, who wrote specific notes for each band member, this score is phenomenal. The performance on the record is rousing, exhilarating and authentic, from one of the orchestra’s last golden ages.

“A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” from Ellington’s score for the 1935 film “Symphony in Black,” demonstrates his deep engagement with the moods and nuances of black life. In nine minutes, it takes us musically from the frantic pace of work songs to the swing of 1930s Harlem nightclubs. It combines the drama and whining of “The Saddest Tale” with the beauty and contemplation of ” Hymn of Sorrow”. This music is not a treatise; it’s rhapsody in the best sense of the word, in that each musical vignette is full of heart and intimate understanding of the joys and sorrows of black humanity.

I was immediately captivated by the narration of this song – simple, yet deep and witty. The heart of “Searching (Pleading for Love)” lies in the conclusion, which it states at the very beginning of the piece, as an intro, like a narrator sharing what it is about in a prologue. . The theme follows a standard pattern: three times an idea and a conclusion. The bridge of the melody modulates twice, and this concluding motif is present throughout. Right at the climax, he varies it, giving the impression of pleading. His use of sound and space is his alone. Even on a trio recording like this, you can definitely hear the big band playing.

I recommend including this 1936 masterpiece in party playlists. When “Exposition Swing” comes on — with Ellington’s locomotive writing drawing listeners aboard — watch guests bow toward your speakers. Next, Harry Carney opens his baritone sax line with a strutting descending figure. As he finishes the solo, the orchestra cheers him on with a modernist swell built from sustained, complex and chilly sonorities. After another minute of skillful interaction between soloist and orchestra, Ellington’s piano and blues accents set off the piece’s climactic phase, which incorporates collective cries of that same descending motif heard in Carney’s overture. It is a perfect meeting place in the microcosm.

Snippets of songs via Spotify and YouTube.

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