Duke Ellington – Interpretations of Peer Gynt & more

More Duke Ellington

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Jazz Hall of Fame.

One of Ellington’s most enjoyable classic collaborations with Billy Strayhorn.

A++, huge, so big it really fills the room from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Not many records can do that.

Clear and hi-rez. It could use more richness — that alone would earn it another plus.

Insightful Review

Many classical composers had incorporated jazz and proto-jazz elements in their work, going all the way back to Debussy’s graceful versions of ragtime. However, it took George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to galvanize composers and to get artists to take jazz as seriously as they took Brahms. I’m not calling Gershwin’s work the best amalgam of jazz and classical or even calling it jazz, in the sense in which most present-day aficionados use the word. I talk strictly about its impact. Gershwin became an archetype which many jazz musicians found enormously attractive. J. P. Johnson forsook a career as band leader and one of the great jazz pianists to devote himself full-time to composition based in black dance-band music. Ellington himself – deploring what he called the “lampblackisms” of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – was nevertheless inspired to Black, Brown, and Beige and a career which raised displays of solo virtuosity to mini-concerti, the “mood” piece to concert suite, and the vocal to “sacred concert.”

All of these things have encountered critical resistance, I believe, for the following reasons: Critical ignorance leads the rest. Classical critics don’t usually have a firm idea of jazz tradition or procedures, and they tend to seriously undervalue both. Racism probably entered into the initial critical reaction, but it doesn’t explain the current resistance. I believe most classical critics are keeping Ellington’s work at arms’ length not because he’s black, but because they just don’t get it. They don’t get it because they don’t listen to jazz enough, and they don’t listen to jazz because they don’t take it seriously. They don’t take it seriously because they haven’t listened seriously to enough of it – a circle of ignorance.

Furthermore, a great deal of Ellington’s work resulted from a collaboration between himself and the composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Consequently, critics don’t know how to assign credit: did Ellington or Strayhorn come up with this particular wonderful thing? Testimony from various sources doesn’t help, since almost every witness says that Ellington and Strayhorn’s techniques were identical. To finish a piece on deadline, Ellington would work on a passage, wake up Strayhorn, and catch a nap while Strayhorn took over, often in mid-measure. The fact that Ellington and Strayhorn frequently couldn’t remember who thought of what doesn’t help matters. Nevertheless, we can deal with the last problem by assigning credit to both, creating an entity known as Ellington-Strayhorn.

As orchestrators and harmonists, Ellington and Strayhorn found inspiration in Debussy and Ravel. Relatively late in his career, Ellington decided to release an album devoted to orchestrations of other composers and chose Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – not exactly a safe choice, since many consider Tchaikovsky one of the great orchestrators.

The arrangement of Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites comes closer to typical Ellington and therefore surprises me less, although I don’t sneeze at it. The opening chords alone provide more to think about than many a symphony. Nevertheless, it seems a brilliant arrangement, rather than, like the Tchaikovsky, a magnificent recomposition. High points include the plucked bass chords from Aaron Bell, the Dreigroschenoper ensemble writing that open “Ase’s Death” as well as the range of color at each repetition of the theme, and the almost-Cubist breakup of the theme into big-band riffs and short, tasty solos from the reed soloists (Hamilton, Hodges, and Gonsalves) in “Anitra’s Dance.”

In 1960, the Monterey Jazz Festival commissioned Ellington for a large-scale work. Since Monterey is Steinbeck country, Ellington decided to write a piece based on Steinbeck’s novella Sweet Thursday – which, in typical Ellingtonian wordplay, became Suite Thursday. The links with the prose piece seem more fanciful than literal, with “Misfit Blues” (the first movement) a musical portrait of Steinbeck himself, according to Ellington. “Schwiphti” flies fast as photons, with a punched, jagged solo from Ellington himself and fleet displays from saxophonist Gonsalves.

All in all, it’s one of Ellington’s most focussed large-scale efforts, despite a tendency to ramble in the third movement. It ends on a swinging Ray Nance solo (on violin, yet!), miles away from the politesse of Grapelli. I’ve heard only one other violinist (and not a jazz violinist, surprisingly) swing this hard.

The sound is typical of the way producers like to mike big bands – a little bass-heavy, apparently to put more “muscle” in the music – but it’s bearable. [We find it quite bearable.] As for the performance, come on – it’s the Ellington band. You might as well question whether Sid Caesar’s writers were funny.

Steve Schwartz

TRACK LISTING

Side One (Selections from Peer Gynt)

Morning Mood
In The Hall of the Mountain King
Solvejg’s Song
Ase’s Death
Anitra’s Dance

Side Two (Suite Thursday)

Misfit Blues
Schwiphti
Zweet Zurzday
Lay-By