Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: The Ellington
(Pablo PACD 2310-762-2 CD. Duke Ellington, prod.; no eng.
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 Queens 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 Dukes last thirty years represented some sort of extended, diminished, coda
to the great musicians career.
Well, I think thats 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 Ellingtons 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 Ellingtons minor tunes
are more melodic than many composers finest works) but that compensate the listener
with beautifully fulfilled orchestral textures and colors.
Its strange that Ellingtons 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 shouldnt let the cat out of
the bag. But hey, Ive already got my collection in order.
Besides, Pablo has just released The Ellington Suites,
which features my beloved The Queens 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
But The Queens Suite is the reason to own this
disc and the reason youll 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 wasnt
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. Its 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
So there you have it. One phenomenal composer, fifteen
masterful musicians, and a work dedicated to beauty, graciousness and wonder. What I
dont understand is how could you not love it.
Perhaps Pablos 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 JVCs K2 interface. Tape hiss is non-existent and
the sound is rich and full-bodied. Theres not a lot of depth to the soundstage, but
thats also true of the LP, so it seems petty to carp about that here. Lets
just say that if you can listen to this music and remained unmoved, well you wont be
crying over Little Nells death, either -- and Tinker Bell is a guaranteed goner.
On the other hand, if beauty and wonder are still capable
of moving you, dont hesitate to buy this disc. Long after Ellingtons 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?