Duke Ellington The Great Concerts - Chicago Civic Opera 1946
"Powerful Ellingtonia with the added attraction of Reinhardt."
Ellington and his band were on tour throughout 1946 and this double set showcases two concerts given in Chicago at the beginning and the end of the year. The November set also saw the appearance of Django Reinhardt on a borrowed electric guitar and his presence on four tracks - essentially solo, with sketchy arrangements - is a must for those yet to have heard it. But then the rest of the programme is hardly a chore, since there are some typically fabulous Ducal things here.
The programme is back presented, with the December concert with Reinhardt occupying disc one. We hear Duke's piano with Harry Carney and Sonny Greer to the fore in Ring Dem Bells before some liquid and gloriously impersonal Jimmy Hamilton clarinet on Beale Street Blues. Due to the exigencies of the recorded set up - these are obviously ad hoc non-commercial recordings made by John Steiner using overhead microphones - there are decidedly odd sectional balances as well as fade outs and some endings cut somewhat short. They don't impede enjoyment. Carney unveils his rhapsodic self on The Golden Feather whilst A Very Unbooted Character is notable for the trumpet exchanges of Ray Nance and Shorty Baker. Note too the less well known Sultry Sunset where Duke's side slipping piano sets up its own mood and where Hamilton shows strong personality in his solo. Ellington was deep into his Suites at the time and here we have The Deep South Suite which ends, it's often forgotten, with Happy go lucky Local. The first number, Magnolias just dripping with Molasses, is despite its laden imagery a real swinger with subtle colouration. Hearsay is a sombre Lento whilst There was nobody looking sports a charming Ducal solo.
When Greer goes into a back beat groove on Hiawatha the blood corpuscles swell and Al Sears's long solo adds to the brew - not especially distinguished but good indeed, and presaging the arrival later in the band of Paul Gonsalves. Then it's time for Django and four brief numbers pulsing with the astonishing fluency of which he was the only master. The band provides, in effect, opening and closing cues but the meat is Django, with the Duke providing blues prompts on A Blues Riff.
The January 1946 concert featured a somewhat different band. Francis Williams and Bernard Flood were in the trumpet section soon to be replaced by the elite Baker and Nance team. Otto Hardwick was still in the sax section; Russell Procope replaced him later on. Highlights here include a swinging Lawrence Brown on Solid Old Man, the two extracted items from the Black, Brown and Beige Suite and more besides. Let's focus on Taft Jordan's springy trumpet solo on Rugged Romeo and the mini concerto for Cat Anderson, Coloratura from the Perfume Suite, in which he mines Ziggy Elman's schtik Duke turns on the Stride Piano in Frankie and Johnny and classical voicings in vaguely pastel-impressionist hue (his favourite influence Eastwood Lane, probably) in Mellow Ditty. The Ducal Fugue is not a Fugue at all but we can wait instead for Johnny Hodges in Magenta Haze and it's well worth the wait. One of my favourite things in Jazz happens to be the intoxicating few bars Duke strolled out in his ineffable Dancers in Love, another number from his Perfume Suite. It's a cure for anything.
Powerful Ellingtonia then in this well filled set, with the added attraction of Reinhardt. These live recordings capture the band in sometimes unexpected emphases due to the microphone placements, but the powerful individualism of its members never falters.
Jonathan Woolf, Musicweb-international.com
"I cannot find fault with this highly commendable set. Thank heaven that John Steiner recorded these concerts..."
Because Duke Ellington was one of the most prolific artists in the history of jazz, it is diffficult to keep track of all his recordings and performances, but it is good to have this recording of two concerts in Chicago. The recordings were apparently released on the Music Masters label in 1994 but they are rare and therefore well worth reissuing.
Both CDs were recorded at Chicago's Civic Opera: the first on 10 November 1946; the second on 20 January 1946. They contain many familiar Ducal compositions but they also include several rarities: like the Deep South Suite on the first CD. This CD is also notable for the presence of guitarist Django Reinhardt. The Duke had met Django in Paris in 1939 and was very impressed with his musicianship. In his book Music is my Mistress, Ellington called him "A very great friend of mine, and one whom I regard as among the four great inimitables of our music".
Reinhardt certainly displays his greatness in four tracks, where he plays an electric guitar, on which he sounds like a cross between Charlie Christian and Les Paul. It makes a change from the chugging acoustic guitar we usually hear him playing. He shows his astonishing technique in Ride, Red, Ride (a variation of Tiger Rag), a long outing on the blues, and a ruminative unaccompanied Improvisation No. 2. The band joins in for Honeysuckle Rose, punching riffs behind Django's soloing.
This is the undoubted highspot of the first CD but there are plenty of other things to savour. The Deep South Suite is a new three-part composition with veiled references to the contrast between the dream and the reality of life under slavery, moving from an optimistic opening to the dour Hearsay. There is a further contrast in the sprightly There Was Nobody Looking, a piano solo which Duke explained as "When nobody is looking, many people of different extractions are able to get along well together". The fourth and final movement of the suite, Happy-Go-Local became one of Ellington's most popular pieces, picturing a small local train tottering noisily down the track.
Other highlights of the first CD include a strolling version of Beale Street Blues (with declamatory solos from Lawrence Brown and Ray Nance); The Air-Conditioned Jungle featuring Jimmy Hamilton's clear-toned clarinet; and The Golden Feather, which spotlights the gorgeously deep sound of Harry Carney's baritone sax.
There are imperfections in the recording. For instance, Memphis Blues suddenly fades out in the middle, and Blue Skies lacks its opening. And the balance is variable - although this has one surprising benefit. It allows us to hear vigorous way that drummer Sonny Greer propelled the band, with driving rimshots and sudden unexpected outbursts (which are occasionally chaotic). On most Ellington recordings, Sonny Greer's offerings tend to be submerged, so it is heartening to hear good reasons why the Duke employed him for more than 30 years.
The second CD is equally engrossing, opening with the USA's national anthem and including such Ducal favourites as In a Mellotone and Take the "A" Train. There is a new work: a suite of three movements under the collective title of "A Tonal Group". This comprises the dreamy Mellow Ditty (with an exquisite solo from altoist Johnny Hodges); Fugue, in which Jimmy Hamilton and Harry Carney's clarinets combat an increasingly complex variety of instruments from the orchestra; and Jam-a-Ditty, which is what its title implies: a bluesy jam. The helpful sleeve-note calls this last "a kind of concerto grosso" and its structure is way ahead of the big-band norm.
There are two excerpts from the 1943 suite Black, Brown and Beige: Come Sunday with soaring playing from Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges, and the more extrovert Work Song. There are also two sections of 1944's Perfume Suite: Dancers in Love, with Ellington soloing on the jaunty tune, and the melodramatic Coloratura, in which trumpeter Cat Anderson portrays "a prima donna who feels she is always making an entrance".
Frankie and Johnny lets Duke Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton stretch out with joyous solos, and Oscar Pettiford's double bass adds to the excitement. Magenta Haze is a beautiful outing for Johnny Hodges. Ellington and Pettiford pay tribute to deceased bassist Jimmy Blanton with Pitter Panther Patter. The concert ends on a rousing note with Suburbanite, where Al Sears' tenor-sax snakes around luxuriously.
I can't understand why the two concerts on this double album were not put in chronological order, but otherwise I cannot find fault with this highly commendable set. Thank heaven that John Steiner recorded these concerts in a resonant acoustic which captures the spirit of the band.
Tony Augarde, Musicweb-international.com