Duke Ellington - the pianist

hopkins

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Opening up this thread to share Ellington tracks which showcase his piano playing and that I find interesting/exciting.
I will be adding the tracks to a YouTube playlist:


Here's a first track - a very groovy "John Sanders Blues", recorded live on April 30, 1955, in Washington D.C.:


The recording quality is not great, but the music certainly is.

Here is what the music critic Eddie Lambert says about this piece in his book "Duke Ellington - A Listener's Guide":

"...perhaps the most interesting item from this concert is a blues piano improvisation which Ellington played to close the proceedings. Accompanied by the rhythm section only and taken at a loping slow to medium tempo. it demonstrates Ellington's very personal mastery of the blues idiom and his remarkable inventive capacity. His harmonic and rhythmic resources seem endless. The piece is called "John Sanders Blues", but we do not know whether or not this was because Sanders suggested the musical idea to Duke. This was a kind of performance which had never been heard from Ellington before; happily it was followed by several blues piano solos in a similar vein over the next few years."

The only other occurrence of this track in my rather extensive collection of Ellington music, is in this 1964 "recital" at Columbia University, as part of a "Blues Medley":



His variations on "C-Jam Blues" at the end of the track are noteworthy.

Enjoy!
 
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Scott Naylor

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What a great idea for a thread! Thank you, hopkins

(btw, the second 1964 Columbia U video comes up as UNAVAILABLE:-( )
 

hopkins

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What a great idea for a thread! Thank you, hopkins

(btw, the second 1964 Columbia U video comes up as UNAVAILABLE:-( )

Thanks for pointing that out - I linked to another YouTube version, hoping that one is ok.
 
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hopkins

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Here is a track from a 1960 recording session, that was not released until 1979. It is from the album titled "Unknown Session".

This is a small-group session:
  • Ray Nance - trumpet
  • Lawrence Brown - trombone
  • Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone
  • Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone
  • Harry Carney - baritone saxophone
  • Duke Ellington – piano
  • Aaron Bell - bass
  • Sam Woodyard - drums
This is what Eddie Lambert has to say about this album: "In many ways, this is the ultimate in small-group Ellingtonia. It seems incredible that twelve such perfectly balanced and polished performances of totally new arrangements could be turned out at one recording session, but of course Duke was working with brilliant virtuosi who knew his music and his methods intimately."

The whole album has a very relaxed "feel".

The last track is another one of those improvised "jams" that illustrate Ellington's qualities both as a soloist (briefly in the introduction where he sets the mood and tempo) and as an accompanist as well.


Here is what Stanley Dance has to say, in his liner notes: "Nearly all of Ellington's small-band dates ended with an improvised blues. He enjoyed them himself, and his men responded with the confidence of long association. There was rarely more than one take, and the performances were usually very successful. Blues, 1960 vintage, is no exception. Each of the horns takes two choruses, but it is the piano player - at the top of his game - who is the most inventive, running the gamut in some fourteen choruses. By turns puzzling, esoteric, whimsical and insinuating, he provides a stimulating accompaniment that foresees, where it does not direct, every move of his companions. Then, as the number builds, his strong, propulsive chords insistently urge everyone along to the climax and Nance's exultant cries. Last but not least, a word for Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard, who furnish such flexible and unselfish support throughout."

If I am not mistaken, the order of the solos are: Johnny Hodges (alto), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Ray Nance (trumpet), Harry Carney (baritone), Aaron Bell (bass).

Enjoy!
 
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LL21

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Here is a track from a 1960 recording session, that was not released until 1979. It is from the album titled "Unknown Session".

This is a small-group session:
  • Ray Nance - trumpet
  • Lawrence Brown - trombone
  • Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone
  • Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone
  • Harry Carney - baritone saxophone
  • Duke Ellington – piano
  • Aaron Bell - bass
  • Sam Woodyard - drums
This is what Eddie Lambert has to say about this album: "In many ways, this is the ultimate in small-group Ellingtonia. It seems incredible that twelve such perfectly balanced and polished performances of totally new arrangements could be turned out at one recording session, but of course Duke was working with brilliant virtuosi who knew his music and his methods intimately."

The whole album has a very relaxed "feel".

The last track is another one of those improvised "jams" that illustrate Ellington's qualities both as a soloist (briefly in the introduction where he sets the mood and tempo) and as an accompanist as well.


Here is what Stanley Dance has to say, in his liner notes: "Nearly all of Ellington's small-band dates ended with an improvised blues. He enjoyed them himself, and his men responded with the confidence of long association. There was rarely more than one take, and the performances were usually very successful. Blues, 1960 vintage, is no exception. Each of the horns takes two choruses, but it is the piano player - at the top of his game - who is the most inventive, running the gamut in some fourteen choruses. By turns puzzling, esoteric, whimsical and insinuating, he provides a stimulating accompaniment that foresees, where it does not direct, every move of his companions. Then, as the number builds, his strong, propulsive chords insistently urge everyone along to the climax and Nance's exultant cries. Last but not least, a word for Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard, who furnish such flexible and unselfish support throughout."

If I am not mistaken, the order of the solos are: Johnny Hodges (alto), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Ray Nance (trumpet), Harry Carney (baritone), Aaron Bell (bass).

Enjoy!
Awesome...in the basket!
 
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hopkins

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Here is a well known track - Mood Indigo - from Ellington's "Masterpieces" LP, recorded on December 18, 1950.


Here is what Eddie Lambert has to say about the album:

"Masterpieces By Ellington is one of the peaks of Duke's achievement. The three ballads represent just about the fullest extent to which jazz techniques can be applied to ballad performances without starting to sound like pseudo-symphonic light music. Within their scope they incorporate great jazz solos - Hodges in Mood Indigo, Baker in Sophisticated Lady, and Nance in Solitude being outstanding. The structure of the arrangements of Mood Indigo and Sophisticated Lady is masterly and quite the equal of any of Ellington's more obvious compositional triumphs. From this time onward, Ellington seems less interested in remakes of his earlier songs. These remain part of the recording repertoire, but only rarely are they treated with the care and attention found in the series which started with the 1945 Victor revivals and culminated with this collection. It is as if with Masterpieces By Ellington Duke felt he had achieved a level of excellence he could never surpass."

If you listen to the track and pay attention to the piano you will see how Ellington "conducts" through his piano playing. His piano introduces different segments, sometimes with a single chord (example at 9:46), sometimes with a "motif" (example starting at 1:01, again at 2:45) or with a lengthy solo (ex: starting at 5:20 and at 13:28). He has a "dialog" with the different soloists who elaborate on the melodies he introduces, or the subtle rhythmic changes (example at 3:37).

Here is what Eddie Lambert writes about this track:

"Masterpieces By Ellington opens with Mood Indigo. This has as its centerpiece three vocal choruses by Yvonne Lanauze which are not particularly outstanding. They are the weakest part of the performance, but so perfectly set by Ellington that they provide an ideal nucleus to the structure. Prior to the vocal, we have a theme statement by one of those variants of the traditional Mood Indigo trio voicing which Ellington liked to use: on this occasion, two muted trombones bones and bass clarinet make up the trio. From this time onwards, Russell Procope started to emerge as an Ellington clarinet soloist, and here he plays what used to be Barney Bigard's chorus, using a thick, broad tone and a blues-impregnated impregnated melodic style. He is beautifully backed by Ellington who is at his most brilliant as a keyboard accompanist throughout these performances. Procope goes on to play a low-register obbligato against the brass in the next section. This passage is scored for muted trumpets, and with Ellington's shifting harmonies some wonderful sounds are heard. The next two choruses are given over to Johnny Hodges, again with brilliant piano backing; this solo is a minor masterpiece in itself. The full band is used for the first time in the sixth chorus, which has superb lead trumpet from Baker and constantly moving and changing counterpoint among saxes, trumpets, and trombones, scored with breathtaking taking beauty and originality. In the reeds, the lead is changed about from clarinet to alto to tenor to baritone, with Carney's deep sound creating a magnificent basis for the multi structured writing. The greatest possible contrast is heard in the next chorus, given over to piano variations, calm in spirit with beautiful chording and balanced, inventive melodic structures. The band's newest soloist, Gonsalves, takes the bulk of the following chorus in a rich-toned, highly rhapsodic solo played against a brooding orchestral backdrop, drop, but Ellington himself has the last four bars to set up the vocal entry. The first vocal chorus is backed by piano and rhythm only, the second by powerful plungered brass, and the third by sultry, stilled saxophone harmonies. The contrast as Glenn's plunger-muted trombone takes over at the conclusion of Lanauze's vocal is dramatic. One chord from Ellington immediately changes the mood, and Glenn's two choruses, again with trenchant support from the pianist, are among his best on record. This trombone solo is followed by a long ensemble section in 3/4 time during which Nance's trumpet is briefly heard. Duke's piano then leads back to the recapitulation of the theme by two trombones and bass clarinet, but this time, improvised countermelodies by Procope and Ellington create a rich three-part counterpoint with the trio as lead voice. This is followed by a brief, incisive piano coda. This Mood Indigo must be reckoned among the very finest of all Ellington arrangements."

As a bonus, the album is beautifully recorded.
 
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hopkins

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There is interestingly not that much written about Ellington's piano style and technique.

Gunther Schuller, in his anthology "Swing Era" mentions his piano playing in a footnote to the lengthy chapter on Ellington as a composer:

"Ellington's crucial role as pianist of his orchestra is seldom fully appraised. While it is true that Ellington was in style and conception as a player rather uneven (originally a rather average ragtime and stride pianist, but later developing a richly harmonic style of his own), his real forte was as a rhythmic energizer of the orchestra (as a member of the rhythm section) and, above all, as a possessor of the most remarkable piano tone and touch. This was not used to project a soloistic virtuoso style. Indeed, Ellington was not, and had no ambitions to be, a major soloist like Hines or Tatum or Bud Powell. Instead he was a born orchestral pianist and used his amazing tone and rich “orchestral" timbre to project to the orchestra the essence - the sound world - of a given piece, to lead the orchestra, in other words, from the piano, to galvanize it rhythmically, to inspire it creatively, and to complement it pianistically when needed.

Perhaps one needed to have stood close to Ellington's piano-playing to fully appreciate the remarkable fullness and depth of his sound. I had that privilege many times, and I can say with total conviction that, with but very few exceptions - one is the remarkable modern Third Stream pianist Ran Blake - I have never encountered a pianist, jazz or classical, who could command at once such purity of tone and range of dynamics and timbres as Ellington. He had a way of playing what I call "deep in the keys" to produce the clearest, most controlled impact of the hammer on the strings and, as a result, the fullest purest resonance of those strings. Ellington could play the most forceful piano, matching his entire orchestra at full tilt; and yet I never heard him force or bang, as so many pianists do when they venture into the ff range. His tone and projection were such that with one chord or a few fill-in notes he could energize the entire orchestra. And in addition he could combine his basic piano sonority with all manner of timbral sonorities; one heard trumpets, saxophones, horns, oboes, even strings in his playing. Although he rarely featured himself in extensive solos - and although recordings could not fully capture the beauty of his sound-it is well worth paying close attention to Ellington's post-1930 solo passages, particularly his ever more creative solo introductions of the late thirties and early forties, on which he often lavished the most extraordinary harmonic invention."

Similar comments are made by Eddie Lambert, highlighting the subtlety of his touch:

"Ellington was not the most dexterous jazz pianist on record, but his inherent musicality makes him one of the most fascinating. In terms of musical rather than digital virtuosity, he is unexcelled. His timing is astonishing in its absolute rightness, and his touch can vary from the most delicate caress to a positively brutal attack. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ellington's pianism is the way in which he plays with a very precise dynamic placing of each note within a chord to give a great variety of voicings."

There is an interesting radio show - unfortunately in French - with Claude Carrière - a French musician/critic/publisher and Ellington "specialist" - in which he talks at length of Ellington's piano:


Perhaps the reasons for this lack of recognition is due to two facts:

- Ellington's style developed a lot throughout his career, and especially between the 1920s and 1940s

- Ellington did not perform often in solo (or trio), and not before the 1940s

This CD set compiled by Claude Carrière, includes some of his first piano features:



It includes all tracks from Ellington's "Piano Reflections" album (more about this one later).
 
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LL21

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Here is a well known track - Mood Indigo - from Ellington's "Masterpieces" LP, recorded on December 18, 1950.


Here is what Eddie Lambert has to say about the album:

"Masterpieces By Ellington is one of the peaks of Duke's achievement. ...

As a bonus, the album is beautifully recorded.
Agree it is a great album and very well recorded. Thanks for taking the time!
 
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Here's another interesting session, this time a quartet:

Recorded on June 24, 1958

1.Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue (The Wailing Interval) - 07:22
2.Happy Reunion (Take 1) - 03:29
3.Happy Reunion (Take 2) - 02:45
4.In A Mellotone (Take 1) - 03:16
5.In A Mellotone (Take 2) - 03:00
  • Duke Ellington - piano
  • Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone
  • Jimmy Woode - bass
  • Sam Woodyard - drums
It was first issued on LP in 1985. As far as I know, there are three versions on CD of this session, which all contain additional, interesting, sessions/tracks:


The first CD is available on Qobuz, with the same title "Happy Reunion" but in a horrible version that was probably a vinyl rip.
The third CD is available on Qobuz, with good sound:


The first track, "Diminuendo..." is an incredibly exciting performance by Paul Gonsalves, better in my modest opinion than the famous Newport version. You can listen throughout to the subtle interaction between Ellington's piano and Gonsalves' tenor solo. They are both feeding on each others' ideas.


The next track (and its alternate take), "Happy Reunion" is one of my favorite of Paul Gonsalves'. But the piano playing is fascinating as well. The 5 introductory chords are a perfect illustration (though I have no technical musical knowledge, so I may be wrong on some aspects) of what the jazz critic Ethan Iverson describes here: "if a student wants to sound like Ellington, there’s no point in looking at “The Real Book.” [i.e. the transcription] Ellington’s performance is too mysterious and detailed. Each of Ellington’s chords is its own universe. Some chords have added-tone harmony that fit a scale; some do not."

Ellington's piano accompaniment throughout the track is perfect!


There are a few live performances of this track available on YouTube, but my favorite is from a residency at the University of Wisconsin in July 1972:


Gonsalves (who is called by Ellington by his nickname - "stinky") is clearly a little tipsy, but what a touching performance!

You can watch here a longer video with extracts of several conferences, including that performance towards the end, but you will need a Vimeo logon to watch it:


The next track "In A Mellotone" is available as well in two versions. Notice the completely different piano introductions of the two versions (more about this later...):



Here are Stanley Dance's liner notes for this session:

"The second session [June 24, 1958] is almost like overhearing four men playing for pleasure in private. In a Mellotone is taken at a happy but slightly pushing tempo. There are brief memories of Ben Webster, but no regrets, and Paul Gonsalves soon has a grip on the number. It is a relaxed interpretation in four-four, yet it leaves one feeling that the saxophonist might perhaps have benefited from more varied underpinning. The differences between the two takes are interesting but not major. Gonsalves offers first a fairly simple, straight statement of the theme, then an elaboration followed by exploration, followed by some "mainstream" emphasis, and ending with his charting a somewhat new course.

Happy Reunion is a torch song like The Man I Love or It's the Talk of the Town, of a kind uncommon from Elllington. It should undoubtedly have had lyrics, when it could easily have become-and could still become-a popular hit. Gonsalves gives it his best shot and puts a lot of feeling into the release. His approach is more volatile and sophisticated than that which Coleman Hawkins, for whom the number might have been written, would have given it with his big sound and surging emotion. Premiered publicly at the Newport Festival on 3 July 1958, it was almost too intimate a piece for such an outdoor event. Recorded later that month for Columbia, its great merits tended to be passed over in favor of more flamboyant performances.

This version of the "wailing interval" from Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue runs to thirty-one choruses, four more than in history-making ride at Newport in 1956. Of that occasion the appreciation Paul Gonsalves especially prized came from Paul Desmond, who told him, "What you and the band played was the most honest statement that night." Unlike the musicians, critics have tended to express patronizing reservations about it, as though it were a mere flagwaver and an easy achievement. In later years, through constant repetition, a certain amount of zest and spontaneity inevitably went out of its performance, but here, with just the band's superb rhythm section and no hype or vociferous, screaming crowd. Gonsalves lays down a definitve version. He was fully prepared. Not that the routine was "thought out," but by this time he could close his eyes and let go with no risk of drying up. There was always an unpredictable, improvised element in the way he took care of this "interval," and he did not resort to signposts to prepare the listener for what was to come. Yet when conditions were right, as here, it was relatively effortless, and he could return to his chair undepleted, by no means a spent force. As Ellington well knew, he was one of the greatest tenor players jazz has produced."

Enjoy!

(...to be continued...)
 
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hopkins

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On any of the above CDs, there is a track that is very nice and I thought I should mention:



Recorded at Universal Studios, Chicago on March 19, 1956
  • Duke Ellington – piano
  • Clark Terry - trumpet
  • John Sanders - valve trombone
  • Jimmy Hamilton - clarinet
  • Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone
  • Jimmy Woode - bass
  • Sam Woodyard - drums
There are so many interesting tracks in Ellington's discography!
 

hopkins

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Here is a curiosity - Ellington playing electric piano! This is a session dating May 19, 1953, which was his last for Capitol records. Capitol never issued it. It was included in the Mosaic box set "Complete Capitol Recordings".




The last track is close to 5 minutes in length, but the version available on YouTube is cut short after 1:40...
  • Ray Nance - trumpet, violin
  • Quentin Jackson - trombone
  • Russell Procope - alto saxophone, clarinet
  • Duke Ellington - piano
  • Jimmy Woode - bass
  • Dave Black - drums
  • Jimmy Grissom - vocals
 

hopkins

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Here is another well known "piano intensive" album by Ellington in a small group setting: "Back to Back". It was recorded on February 20, 1959, at the 30th street Columbia Studios in New York. The sound is excellent - but more about this later...

The album "Side by Side" is its "companion", as it includes a session recorded on February 26th, 1959, with pretty much the same "cast".

On "Back to Back", we have:

  • Duke Ellington – piano
  • Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone
  • Harry Edison – trumpet
  • Les Spann – guitar
  • Al Hall – bass (tracks 1 and 4)
  • Sam Jones – bass (tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 7)
  • Jo Jones – drums
Here is one of the tracks from "Back to Back": Weary Blues


Some claim that Ellington is the greatest blues pianist - and I would tend to agree! This track demonstrates the unique aspects of his piano playing, explained in the previous posts through some quotes by articulate jazz critics.

Leonard Feather, in his liner notes, has this to say about "Weary Blues":

"Weary Blues leads from an Al Hall bass introduction into an Ellington piano solo in which Duke plays as if the chords were sticking to his fingers and he has to shake them off. His second chorus is another unusual sample of pianistic Ellingtonia, with a funky atmosphere and a couple of phrases that recall Avery Parrish of After Hours fame. The two horns play the melody in thirds — a theme so simple, incidentally, that no-one would dare to compose anything like it today. Notice how Duke’s masterly control of the undercurrent, particularly during Harry Edison’s solo, precludes any danger of monotony in the rhythm section. This is perhaps the simplest track in the album, both in construction and interpretation; it is also, for at least one listener, the most beautiful."

And Eddie Lambert has these strong words to say about these two sessions:

"The outstanding soloist on these two LPs is unquestionably Ellington. Here he plays as a jazz soloist without any hint of "composer's piano" or of just being around as accompanist to the other musicians, a pose he often liked to affect. Duke's perfromance here is one ot the most inventive displays by a jazz soloist in the entire history of jazz. Ellington does not have the virtuosity of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, or Earl Hines, but he has a balance in his musical vocabulary which none of these possesses, as well as invention which surpasses that of any other jazz soloist except Louis Armstrong.

In the piano solos, everything is in proportion - melody, harmony, and rhythm combine in a remarkably articulate language. And Ellington improvises with all three elements, creating new melodic patterns, new rhythmic shapes, and unusual harmonic blends […] His beautiful touch is also in evidence, as is his subtle way of playing chords with each note given a different weight."

Concerning the sound quality...

I have three versions of this album:

- the standard "Verve" digital issue available on Qobuz: https://play.qobuz.com/album/0060253773269
- a digital download from High Definition Tape Transfers: https://www.highdeftapetransfers.ca...ke-ellington-and-johnny-hodges-play-the-blues
- a 1960 mono LP: https://www.discogs.com/release/6467281-Duke-Ellington-Johnny-Hodges-Duke-Ellington-et-Johnny-Hodges


The HDTT version has less noise than the Verve digital version. On the Verve version there is a high level of background "hiss" that is not present on the HDTT version.

The 1960 mono LP - which I got essentially because there are no mono versions available in digital format - trounces both of these digital versions. It is more "dynamic", there is more resolution - but you get some clicks and pops as well...

The superiority of the vinyl version is obvious even with my "modest" turntable, which in fact I play through an ADC to my DAC!

There is no question that the superiority of the vinyl version is not linked to "vinyl artefacts", and it is clear that the digital versions are not more "accurate". While this could be the case for some recordings, here it is not, and the only way to convince yourself of that is to actually listen to both.

Do you need the "best version" to appreciate the music? Obviously not. I essentially purchased the LP version because I wanted to see how it sounded in Mono, as the stereo version has a lot of panning of the instruments between the two channels. This is a matter of personal preference. I am happy listening to either one.

On the other hand, given the quality of the recording, and the quality of the performance - the depth of the sound both from an "audio" and "musical" perspective - it may be worth looking into getting the best version.

Enjoy!
 
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An Ellington album that I regularly come back to is "The Duke Plays Ellington", also issued as "Piano Reflections".

Here is the original LP issued in 1954 (the recording sessions took place in April 1953): https://archive.org/details/lp_the-duke-plays-ellington_duke-ellington


Duke Plays Ellington.jpg

This is his first album featuring him on piano. He is accompanied by Butch Ballard on drums, and Wendell Marshall on bass.

It was re-issued in 1972 as "Piano Reflections": https://www.discogs.com/release/3361850-Duke-Ellington-Piano-Reflections

"Piano Reflections" includes additional tracks from this session, and a second session, in December 1953, with Dave Black replacing Butch Ballard on drums.

The sound quality may be different from what we are used to hearing today in modern productions, but IMO is very good and reveals well the qualities of Ellington's piano playing. I have both a CD version and an original LP. I enjoy both, but the LP offers a little more "authenticity".

Eddie Lambert summarizes his thoughts as follows: "The 1953 piano solos for Capitol are of modest dimensions and demeanor, their considerable subtlety and depth apparent only to those who listen beneath the surface."

The late academic, author, Ellington "expert", and pianist Mark Tucker explains in more detail:

"...Backed by bassist Wendell Marshall and two different drummers—Butch Ballard in April and Dave Black in December—Ellington performed fourteen pieces, eight of them new. This burst of pianistic activity in the studio foreshadowed the 1960s, when Ellington would make more recordings with bass and with trio (including the notorious Money Jungle session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1962), and when he would begin to give public solo piano recitals.

Out on the West Coast in the spring of 1953, Ellington’s orchestra made its first recordings for Capitol on April 6, in a session that produced a piece called Satin Doll. A week later Ellington returned to the studio with Marshall and Ballard, leading off with three new piano compositions: Who Knows?, Retrospection, and B Sharp Blues.

The main theme of Who Knows? displays Ellington’s chromatic bent (which he once traced to the noted arranger Will Vodery), while the bridge features left-hand voicings associated with Willie ‘the Lion’ (cf. Morning Air, recorded in 1939). Ellington’s two solo choruses show his mastery of register, as he gracefully executes large leaps and now and then cascades down the keyboard with runs of startling intensity. The mood quiets down with Retrospection, a sober meditation with harmonies that echo the Victorian parlor songs and hymns of Ellington’s youth. The performance of B Sharp Blues is as witty as its tongue-in-cheek title, with Ellington’s sudden surprising dissonances, his sly allusions to a theme from Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), and his pared-to-the-bone lines which, in the hands of a lesser pianist, might sound like clichés. Ellington’s transforming touch, however, gives them a brittle, modern quality that may remind some listeners of Thelonious Monk.

To round out the session Ellington turned to two pieces that dated from the previous decade. Billy Strayhorn’s Passion Flower, first recorded by Johnny Hodges and a small group in 1941, had become one of the alto saxophonist’s primary vehicles. In 1953 it was still in the Ellington band’s repertory even though Hodges had departed two years earlier (only to rejoin in 1955). Ellington’s interpretation manages to suggest a sense of erotic anticipation even if something of Hodges’s warmth and sensuality are missed. On Dancers in Love, however, from the 1944 Perfume Suite, Ellington captures the youthful ebullience’ of the original. In his memoirs, he wrote that the piece represented ‘naiveté, a stomp for beginners,’ and the deliberately basic chord sequence following the chromatic first theme underscores the dancers’ adolescent infatuation.

The next day, April 14, Ellington began with two haunting compositions, Reflections in D and Melancholia, accompanied only by Marshall on bowed bass. Both pieces point to the difficulty—futility even—of trying to categorize Ellington’s music, for while they draw upon the harmonic vocabulary of jazz, their rhythmic freedom and ethos seem to belong to another world altogether: an idealized realm of memory, nostalgia, and spirituality more characteristic of the nineteenth century than the twentieth. In the context of Ellington’s overall output, these two works—together with the previous day’s Retrospection— form a link between earlier ‘mood pieces’ (Awful Sad, Mood Indigo, Solitude) and the sacred music of the ‘60s (Meditation, Heaven, T.G.T.T.).

Framed by a lovely bell-like figure, Reflections in D has the private quality of a prayer — the listener almost feels like an eavesdropper on an interior monologue, yet privileged to be allowed so near. For Melancholia Ellington drops down a half-step to D-flat for a gentle piece edged in sorrow. (Recently the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has been attracted to Melancholia’s special qualities, recording it on two of his albums.)

For the next four offerings Ellington dipped again into his repertory of standards. Prelude to a Kiss, first recorded in 1938, was another Johnny Hodges feature. Unlike the sustained melody notes of Passion Flower, however, its moving chromatic lines adapt easily to keyboard treatment. Ellington’s tone is warm and rich; he sticks close to the theme throughout, as though it were too lovely to let go. This performance could serve as a study for all pianists in how to balance chords and produce a full-bodied sound without exerting undue pressure. In the early days Ellington emulated Lucky Roberts and some of the ragtime pianists by throwing his hands high off the keyboard and, accordingly, producing a more percussive sound. But by 1953 he had settled down a bit, and film footage from the later years shows him keeping his hands quite close to the keys, his wrists supple, and his fingers slightly curved in ‘classical’ position.

If Prelude to a Kiss is a study in tone, In a Sentimental Mood demonstrates Ellington’s inimitable touch. Especially impressive is the way he shades each note of the theme by either quick releases, half-pedaling, or finger legato. The constant variety of attacks and releases makes the familiar theme fresh. The trio settles into a relaxed blues groove on Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, demonstrating close ensemble interplay with Marshall’s fills, Ballard’s punctuating accents, and in the second chorus, Ellington’s tremolo response to a drum roll. This performance reveals how Ellington preferred building blues choruses out of short motives rather than soloing on the changes. A good example is in the fourth chorus, when Ellington ‘worries’ a two-note figure spaced over an octave apart. Ellington probably derived this practice from the ragtime and stride players, for whom melodic elaboration and embellishment took precedence over harmony-generated improvisation.

All Too Soon, first recorded in 1940 as a feature for trombonist Lawrence Brown and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, later performed as a song with Carl Sigman’s lyrics, is one of Ellington’s most inspired melodies. Even without a text it tells a story through a series of connected, unfolding statements. Although the piece follows the conventional AABA pop song plan, Ellington wrote a varied, summary-like phrase for the last A section which enhances the narrative quality (i.e., the song’s bridge leads not back to the beginning but to somewhere new). As with the preceding three standards, Ellington treats All Too Soon not as a vehicle for improvisation but as an affirmation of melody.

Janet is perhaps the most unusual piece Ellington recorded on these two days. Apparently named after the daughter of a friend, it was performed rarely by Ellington (he did include it on his first public piano recital, 14 January 1962, at the Museum of Modern Art). What’s different is the form: a slow, moody middle flanked by two lively outer sections (turning inside out the scheme found in The Clothed Woman of 1947.) Perhaps the contrasts reflect Janet’s different traits or moods. Ellington often cited various stimuli that inspired his compositions—natural phenomena, places, people, states of feeling, even trains (both express and local). In this case, the three-part Janet succeeds as a miniature tone portrait while the identity of its subject remains obscure."

Enjoy!
 
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hopkins

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Concerning Mark Tucker, mentioned above, there is a fantastic video of a conference of his on the Ellington composition "New World A Coming" here:


You will need to log on to Vimeo to view it.

His presentation starts around 19:40 in the video. He explains the genesis of the composition, and how it was transformed throughout the years. Composed in the early 1940s, it initially communicated his optimism for the progress of african-americans in society. Over the years, his optimism for immediate change after the war gives way to some form of "disillusion", and this transpires through his interpretations. Tucker finishes the presentation by playing the entire composition.

And here is Duke playing it in 1965:


There is a nice version in better sound, recorded in August 1972:


From the liner notes: "Previously unreleased music from the fingertips of Duke Ellington: The scene is 311 West 57 Street, New York, Mediasounds Studio A, Friday August 25th,1972. Duke Ellington was having an engagement with a smaller group at The Rainbow Grill, as he had had several times before, finishing the gig on the following night. But on the 25th, he chose also to go to the recording studio, just himself at the piano together with his two band singers Anita Moore and Tony Watkins, to record some pieces which were not played so often"
 
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