Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour – February 1966 003
Pages 2 and 3 of a souvenir brochure for Duke Ellington's tour of Britain in 1966, presented by Harold Davison and Norman Granz. Benny Green profiles the life and composing technique of Duke Ellington, with photos of some of his 'Famous Orchestra' members.
|Catalogue Reference Number||NJA/PRO/14|
|Creator||Michael Sanders, Benny Green|
|Title or Caption|
This text has been generated by computer from the image and may contain typographical and/or grammatical errors.
ï»¿BY BENNY GREEN
According to the old-time critics, jazz is improvised music. So much for the old-time critics. The greatest figure in jazz is Duke Ellington, and he has spent forty years composing and orchestrating for jazzmen with the most magnificent results. Improvisation has always been a red herring. What matters is not that the jazz unit should be improvising, but that it should sound as though it is improvising, which is a very different thing. Ellington, because of his experience as an improviser, his vast knowledge of orchestral technique and his faultless instinct for knowing what will work, has always been able to write for groups of musicians and still retain the vitality of a soloist in full flight. It is some sort of miracle and nobody has ever managed to define it in a hundred words, or a thousand, or a million.
It is unnecessary at this stage of Ellingtonâs career to talk about his astonishing mastery of the art of voicing instruments in the most felicitous combinations. As Andre Previn has said, when Ellington voices the simplest chord in music, the triad of C Major, its effect is mysteriously different from anybody else's voicing of the same chord. By thinking of the notes in each chord as sounds to be produced by the individual members of his orchestra, Ellington is able to produce a series of unique effects that nobody else in jazz has been able to imitate. C Major played by Hodges, Gonsalves and Carney is a very different thing from C Major played by Hamilton, Williams and Lawrence Brown. That is why if you wanted to reproduce the sound of the Ellington band, you would have to hire every member of that band to achieve your effect.
But apart from the orchestral legerdemain there is one
basic ingredient that lies at the heart of Ellington's effectiveness, and which is indeed the most vital attribute in the armoury of any composer worthy of the name. That ingredient is the gift for melodic invention. Ellington has always been able to write a good tune, and that is why his recordings whether 1927 or 1964, are so rewarding to listen to. So prolific has Ellington been that it becomes impossible to name even one per cent of the melodious music he has created, and the pieces I mention are simply those which revolutionised my own listening. It is a purely subjective business.
On one of Ellingtonâs previous visits to this country, I asked him whether he still played Creole Rhapsody. He seemed unable to recall the piece at all, which is doubly amazing. He recorded that composition more than thirty years ago, and its slow trumpet theme is a superb example of how to build a melody. Today it sounds as fresh as ever and, from the pen of any other jazz orchestrator, would be hailed as a modern classic. Later in the same recording the trumpet theme is amplified by the saxophone section. It is like a relay race in which Ellington the composer hands over to Ellington the orchestrator. A simple theme suddenly becomes something strangely beautiful, shifting tonality in the most unexpected places, and transforming a great melody into a brilliant demonstration of orchestral voicing.
This same process can be repeated in a thousand of his works. 1 recall offhand the suggestion of lazy laughter in his Portrait of Bert Williams, the crackling staccato power of the trumpet section in the last middle eight of Cotton Tail, the inspired way in which the huge jump in the first
LAWRENCE BROWN COOTIE WILLIAMS
bar of / Got It Bad and That Ain't Good is compressed into a tight range to serve as a background figure to Ivie Andersonâs vocal, the exquisite orchestral balance in the ensemble interlude to Star-Crossed Lovers, the audacity with which Ellington recasts Mood Indigo in the extended âMasterpiecesâ recording. I think also of the hundreds of fragmentary demonstrations of musical skill, in little-known songs like Tulip or Turnip.
In fact, to think of Ellington is overwhelming. He has so far outstripped all rivals that it is impossible to compare his music with anything else. There it is, a lone achievement, laughing at pigeonholes, defying analysis, and providing the jazz world with its most effective argument against those who seem to think that jazz is a drunken musical brawl without any kind of subtlety.
Ellington himself has been very specific about what he is doing. He claims to keep his orchestra going so that he can hear what he has written without waiting for somebody else to oblige. He has also explained that his concerts are devoted not to Ellington the composer, but to the soloists in the orchestra, which is commendably self-effacing but a little disappointing to people like myself who yearn to enter a concert hall and hear works like Such Sweet Thunder, Suite Thursday and Liberian Suite in their entirety.
In the meantime, we will all have to struggle on with the fragments Ellington gives us, which is no hardship. Ellington is one of the most gifted musicians of this century, although the world of music at large will probably not realise this until we are halfway through the next one.
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