Top 40 Over 40.30: Duke Ellington, 1962

One of the things I admire about the jazz tradition is the fluidity with which musicians move from being leaders to sidemen. Take an album like Conference of Birds by Dave Holland. I mostly knew Dave as a sideman for Anthony Braxton and Miles Davis. But then Braxton turns around and plays sideman for Holland’s tunes for that great album. There’s a fluidity to that that reminds me of basketball. You can play pickup with many different people, and the form facilitates changes in relationships. Not that this doesn’t happen in indie rock – it just doesn’t seem to happen as often.

Something similar happened in 1962, not only with the sideman-leader switch, but also with the inter-generational meeting of minds that happened on two great albums Duke Ellington pulled off at the age of 63: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and The Money Jungle, (with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.) Most of the compositions are Ellington’s, so I guess he’s the leader. Coltrane and Mingus become sidemen for a change, though Ellington and Coltrane get co-head billing. Anyway, I can’t think of any first rate albums in rock that are inter-generational collaborations like these ones are. Maybe individual songs? I guess? But whole albums? I can’t think of any. I can’t think of others in jazz either, though I’m sure they exist.

Why do they work so well? Well, I always thought that Duke Ellington was underrated as a piano player. The opening of Ellington’s composition Take the Coltrane – a nod to both his biggest hit and his star sideman – shows what I’m talking about:

I got into Ellington in the late 80’s/early 90’s by going backwards in time from records by Mingus and Cecil Taylor. I read that both of those guys, more frequently praised by underground hipsters of my scene, were influenced by Ellington. So I went back and listened to Duke. I was especially intrigued by the way Taylor talked about Ellington and Fats Waller in the liner notes for his 1958 album, Looking Ahead! He helped me realize you could respect and be influenced by tradition while critiquing and crossing its borders and limitations:

“Cecil resisted Ellington at first, but gradually became influenced. ‘In a sense,’ he explains, ‘I’ve never thought ‘pianistically’ because I think of the piano as an orchestra. For a long time, I didn’t particularly dig what they called pianists, because they weren’t utilizing the piano fully. Then I began to really hear Ellington and Fats Waller.’ He also, around the age of twelve, became much intrigued with boogie-woogie. He hopes to eventually return to the form.”

“Cecil’s Excursion On a Wobbly Rail is a performance of galvanic power. ‘The original piece meant much to me as an Ellington admirer and as a New Yorker. It provided me a base here for what I wanted to go on and do. For one thing, I took the chance to use some of the things I’ve learned about Eastern music – India and Bali – in terms of exploiting the colors of the group.’”

When I started buying Ellington albums, I was put off by the big band arrangements at first. It was farther away from the rock and folk and post-bop jazz stuff I was used to. The big wash of horns reminded me of what I didn’t like about classical music – I liked solo albums by Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould, but disliked orchestras. You could hear individual signature styles in the solos and the headers of Ellington’s big band tracks, but the big washes of multiple horns went in another direction I wasn’t ready for at first.

Then I found, in classic record collector fashion, “His early stuff.” LOL. Natch. Specifically, the album The Duke’s Men: Small Groups, Volume 1. I bought it on cassette and I played it over and over and over again. And then I played it some more. Did the same with Volume 2, but liked the first one better. I guess Mosaic reissued all this stuff on a 7 CD boxset in the aughts that’s now out of print. That must be a great set:

It was around the time that Folk Implosion was making the Kids soundtrack, and the drum part I brought for the song Cabride came from listening to Echoes of Harlem, specifically the focus on the tom toms and the way they melodically guide the piece from the trap kit. Too bad we couldn’t find a better saxophone player than me. That song is the only time I ever played saxophone on record – or pretty much anywhere else.

I could hear the vocals on the tracks that had them in a more intimate way than with the bigger band. That related to things I was interested along more singer-songwriter lines at that time:

I also got really obsessed with his 70’s album The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse for similar reasons. That was a big band album, but had sparse flashes. I especially liked the intro to the tune Didgeridoo. I wanted to sample it for FI but it never happened. The intro reminded of the piano sample on No Diggity, which was a huge hit and favorite of Lou and I’s at that time. I wanted Didgeridoo to stay in the groove of it’s first 45 seconds, like a sample based song does. I guess that’s how one generation’s listening expectations can make it hard to hear the song as originally intended.

Looking at reviews of The Duke’s Men today, I see that these sessions were kind of like “Side projects” from his big band. A quick glance at All Music tells me that “In the ’30s, Ellington started recording prolifically with small groups taken from his big band. It gave him an opportunity to both debut new works and to let his sidemen stretch out and act as leaders once in awhile (under his direction).” (LOL.). They go on to say that the “Sessions ostensibly under the leadership of cornetist Rex Stewart (including two selections cut before he joined Ellington), clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and altoist Johnny Hodges.” Ostensibly, hah! Be that as it may, their styles and signatures began to jump out at me too.

Then from there I could go back to more well known collections I had bought, specifically the box set Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, and the album Black, Brown & Beige. Ellington and “The Duke’s Men” led me into the larger ensemble now, because I had learned how to listen for their moves. Years later I made a mash up of samples from songs from different Ellington albums, and then rewrote the result as the song Vanilla Shake for the El Pulpo album I did with the Cicadas. The song title was a nod to the Ellington tune Chocolate Shake, which treats themes of African culture’s challenge to the repression / oppression of Western culture from the Garden of Eden to the Greeks to Livingston and Stanley:

The album with Ellington & Coltrane is a quartet of bass, sax, piano and drums, unlike the Blanton-Webster years. But even in this setting, sometimes the flashes of piano eccentricity seem fleeting. I often want more of them than the more standard parts of the tune. But maybe that’s what make them sparkle? For instance the opening of this tune:

And the first track of the album, In a Sentimental Mood – the piano in the opening just slays me. It makes me want to hear him play on his own forever, like a Cecil Taylor solo album:

Throughout this album, Coltrane and Ellington seem to blend with great comfort and ease. That’s famously not the case for Money Jungle, though. I know that Mingus was the most influenced by Ellington in terms of his composition style compared to others of his generation. You can really hear that composition of a suite of music as opposed to individual tracks in albums like the great Black Saint & The Sinner Lady. Perhaps it’s the anxiety of influence that led Mingus to famously walk out of this recording session, only to be followed out of the studio by Ellington and coaxed into returning. (Ellington was the band leader par excellence, and must have had to do this kind of thing hundreds of times in his career.). Mingus opens the first track with a jagged bass line that sounds like stattaco jabs to the ribs of the other musicians, or like he’s going to break a string on his upright. You can see the spirit in his eyes on the album’s cover photo! Immediately the action from all three players rises to the challenge. Ellington’s piano is more forward in the mix than in the set with Coltrane and throws around clusters of bass heavy chords that return Mingus’s jabs with roundhouse hooks.

Then the album goes lyrical with one of those Ellington piano passages that just makes everyone else sound crude. I don’t mean Roach and Mingus on that date, I just mean everyone, period. I just can’t believe how beautiful a piano player this guy was! And Mingus’s bass riff at the start just slays me too. This is the kind of thing that makes me feel like rock isn’t really true music on the level of the greatest jazz or sometimes even opera like Maria Callas. That feeling doesn’t last when I turn on something like Mother Sky, but it happens.

I really like the sequencing on this record. The third track, Very Special, is all upbeat after the bout of Money Jungle and the idyll of Fleurette, as Mingus walks a bass line that sounds like a Christmas tree that Ellington hangs ornaments on. His piano tone is still quite low mid heavy. I like the way that makes Roach’s hat, ride and snare have the high register all to themselves.

Another low mid tone highlight is the intro to Wig Wise. The left hand spaces notes out at a much longer interval than what the right hand is doing. It sounds jarring in a way my favorite post-bop music of that day did – Monk in particular.

Yeah man, I really dig this Money Jungle album. I guess it shows that getting along swimmingly is overrated. Though I do love the simpatico vibe of the Coltrane collaboration too – they’re both great. They complement each other, y’know, opposites attract and all that. Check ’em out.

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