SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIMusic Archives

July 1, 2001

 

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: The Ellington Suites
(Pablo PACD 2310-762-2 CD. Duke Ellington, prod.; no eng. credited. AAD.)

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

One of the special joys of connoisseurship is that the more thoroughly you know your passion, the more you can differ from the consensus opinion. When I mention that The Queen’s Suite (one of the three suites recorded on The Ellington Suites) is my favorite bit of Ellingtonia, I get funny looks from folks like my good friend Robert Baird, who hews more closely to conventional wisdom -- that the 1941-44 Ellington band was the group for the ages, and that the Duke’s last thirty years represented some sort of extended, diminished, coda to the great musician’s career.

Well, I think that’s a lot of damn nonsense. Maybe not the part about the Blanton/Webster incarnation of the Ellington Orchestra as being its watershed, but certainly the part that simply slags off Ellington’s complete output from the late Forties on. From the mid-Fifties through the early Seventies, Ellington wrote any number of brilliant extended works for his band. Ambitious works that may not offer the catchy melodies of his earlier material (although Ellington’s minor tunes are more melodic than many composers’ finest works) but that compensate the listener with beautifully fulfilled orchestral textures and colors.

It’s strange that Ellington’s mature period is so under-rated, although since that has allowed me to build a very sizable collection of his recordings from that era at reasonable cost, perhaps I shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag. But hey, I’ve already got my collection in order.

Besides, Pablo has just released The Ellington Suites, which features my beloved The Queen’s Suite, as well as The Goutelas Suite and The UWIS Suite. Goutelas was composed in honor of the restoration of a thirteenth century chateau in France. Ellington, asked to consecrate the music room with an inaugural performance, penned the piece for the occasion. Its brassy fanfare and marvelous Paul Gonsalves-led woodwind romp are classic Ellington.

Likewise, UWIS commemorates a week-long residency at the University of Wisconsin that the band conducted in 1972. Its exuberant polka movement strangely and delightfully pairs the trombones with the baritone saxes for some serious low-end swing.

But The Queen’s Suite is the reason to own this disc and the reason you’ll return to it time and time again. Ellington met Queen Elizabeth at an arts festival held in Leeds in 1959. He was apparently charmed by her and by the rather royal reception he and Billy Strayhorn received during their attendance at the festival. When he returned home, he assembled the band and recorded a six section suite he dedicated to the queen. He had a single copy pressed and sent it to her majesty. He never allowed it to be released commercially during his lifetime, so it wasn’t until after his death that it saw the light of day.

It is, quite simply, lovely. Ellington conceived it as six moments of beauty and wonder. The first section is called "Sunset and the Mockingbird" and was based upon a bird call Ellington heard one evening while traveling with the band. "Lightning Bugs and Frogs," similarly, described an evening where Ellington watched the insects dance in the moonlight accompanied by an amphibian orchestra. "Le Sucrier Velours" is "the name the French have for a bird whose song is sweet as sugar and who feels as soft as velours," according to Ellington. The song represents beauty. "Northern Lights" was his attempt to portray a particularly flamboyant aerial display he and Harry Carney witnessed one night in North Bay, Ontario. "A Single Petal of a Rose," Ellington claimed, was inspired by "the sense of wonder." Whenever he played it in concert, he dedicated it to the queen. It’s probably the most delicate and haunting of all his melodies -- when it was played on Ken Burns’ Jazz, message boards all over the Internet were abuzz with queries about it. The final piece, "Apes and Peacocks," takes its title from "The Song of Solomon." Ellington found the image of a garden stocked with earthly delights -- from apes to peacocks -- to be the height of splendor.

So there you have it. One phenomenal composer, fifteen masterful musicians, and a work dedicated to beauty, graciousness and wonder. What I don’t understand is how could you not love it.

Perhaps Pablo’s new CD will rescue The Queen's Suite from obscurity. The disc certainly good-sounding enough -- it was remastered using a 20-bit A/D converter and JVC’s K2 interface. Tape hiss is non-existent and the sound is rich and full-bodied. There’s not a lot of depth to the soundstage, but that’s also true of the LP, so it seems petty to carp about that here. Let’s just say that if you can listen to this music and remained unmoved, well you won’t be crying over Little Nell’s death, either -- and Tinker Bell is a guaranteed goner.

On the other hand, if beauty and wonder are still capable of moving you, don’t hesitate to buy this disc. Long after Ellington’s death, this testament to his passion for a queen is still a source of amazement and delight. And who among us has all we need of that?

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com


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