Sunday, May 01, 2011

Duke Ellington's "All-Star Road Band" (both of 'em)

I came late to an appreciation of big-band jazz, which was one of the two kinds of music that the "good music" station (e.g., the one listened to by people around my current age) used to play when I was a teenager (the other being songs sung by greasy Italian baritones named Al and Tony, which my sister and I covertly referred to as "Mafia music"). It finally came to me via the back door of Mingus, who was always inspahrd by Ellington, compositionally, and by recordings like Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing," which my then-teenage daughter proclaimed "a rock and roll song" after hearing it on the car radio.

This appreciation was cemented by accompanying Dave Karnes to hear Rick Stitzel's TCC Jazz Band with a few ringers at Mambo's Cantina a few seasons ago. There's nothing quite like hearing massed brasses and woodwinds being propelled by a swinging drummer in a live situation, in the same way as there's nothing quite like the athleticism of live ballet dancers, as I discovered when I took the aforementioned daughter to see Swan Lake at the convention center around the same time.

I now own two Duke Ellington albums entitled All Star Road Band. One was recorded in 1957 (a year after Duke's triumphant Newport Jazz Festival appearance) in a high school gymnasium in Pennsylvania, the other in 1964 (three years before his LP watershed And His Mother Called Him Bill) at a ballroom in Chicago -- the kind of informal gigs that allowed Duke to keep making his art, writing music and hearing it performed on the stand that night, long after most big bands had become commercially unviable.

Both were produced by Bob Thiele, and feature a band propelled by Sam Woodyard (a drummer who reminds us that before there was such a thing as a "blues drummer," guys like Fred Below played in swing-style jazz bands), with a reed section that includes Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamiton, Johnny Hodges, and Russell Procope. Four tunes appear on both albums: "Mood Indigo," Hodges' features "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and "Jeep's Blues," and Gonsalves' Newport showstopper "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue."

I bought the 1964 album on CD first, after reading a description of the '57 in Gary Giddins' Rhythm-a-ning, and was initially confused; I gave up reading liner notes around the time the print on CD slicks got too small for my myopic old eyes to decipher. A couple of years later, I stumbled on a vinyl copy of the '57 at Doc's, and after timely pause, the mystery was solved. (Looking online, it appears that more recent issues label '57 and '64 as "volumes 1 and 2" respectively -- what a concept.)

I like the smoothness of the reeds on the '64 date and its inclusion of "Happy Go Lucky Local" (from which Jimmy Forrest, and through him, James Brown borrowed the hook for "Night Train");" the return to the fold of Cootie Williams, celebrated by "Tutti for Cootie;" Hodges' blowing on Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan" and Duke's "Timon of Athens" (Stanley Dance speculates in the liner notes that Duke was punishing Hodges for drankin' too much by featuring him on a half dozen numbers); and not one, but two versions of "Satin Doll," the song Dave Karnes hated playing most of all at the old Black Dog jazz jams.

The '57 boasts not one, but two versions of "Take the 'A' Train," one featuring Ray Nance's scat-singing; Strayhorn's "Such Sweet Thunder;" Clark Terry's hot trumpet on "Perdido" and Harry Carney's championship baritone on "Sophisticated Lady;" and an intimate live ambience where you can hear Gonsalves' bandmates egging him on during his ride on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Both albums present a balance of live spontaneity and the elegance for which the Ellington band was justifiably well known. Listen to 'em back to back and discover a wealth of musical riches from a master and his men at their ease.


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