“Newport 1958 Duke Ellington and His Orchestra”, Mosaic MCD-1014

©Laurence Svirchev

Ellington was an artist who kept moving on. Whether in a night train, a fast motor car driven under star-lit skies by Harry Carney, or at the piano in his hotel room, he loved to compose something new and listen to the band play it at the next concert. His inspirations could come from an aurora borealis observed on a lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada highway, a lick Johnny Hodges had played just a few hours previously, or the street sounds and smells of Isfahan that he  had stored in his memory bank during a US State Department-sponsored tour several months before. This methodological spontaneity allowed him to keep his imagination alive over the course of decades.

The result was that the Ellington orchestra had an incredible book that dated to the 1920s. Ellington the supreme artist was also a showman. He knew that to keep a segment of his audience coming back he had to present the well-played compositions that people had fallen in love to in decades previous.

But the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 was a different matter than normal road-shows. After his 1956 triumph concert with the “Newport Festival Suite” and the astounding rendition of “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue” Ellington’s reputation revived and he was once again an internationally recognized musical aristocrat with one of the few big bands left. His Newport audience would be content with his calling any tune he wanted. Every composition he played in the 1958 Newport concert had been recently written with the exception of one jewel from the past.

This CD is a compilation of concert tracks and studio takes recorded post-concert. The majority are hard-core band swingers of the kind that would excite an audience. But two of them, “Multicolored Rose“ and “Princess Blue” stand out as what might be loosely called “serious” music, the kind of well thought-out, notated, and stately-paced semi-symphonic music that Ellington often aspired to. He had been stung in the past by trite newspaper reviews from establishment-oriented critics when he treaded on grounds that traditionally belonged to classical composers (for example “Black, Brown and Beige”). Ellington had no desire to subject himself to such nonsense again and he chose the material his audiences would hear with great care (At the 1958 Newport Festival, the orchestra also backed Mahalia Jackson on at least a couple of numbers, one of which was “Come Sunday”).

“Multicolored Rose,“ a Billy Strayhorn composition from 1945 originally known as “Ultra Violet.”  is primarily a solo vehicle for Johnny Hodges and vocalist Ozzie Bailey. The basic structure is Hodges stating the melody then soloing over the softly-stated melody from the trombone section with the other brass adding variations to achieve depth. Hodges solos twice, enveloping the singer’s section, and closes the piece.

Many of the male vocalists that Ellington occasionally employed pushed their emotions a bit too hard, entering into the zone of exaggerated self-expression. Ozzie Bailey’s interpretation of the lyrics however, fits the composition perfectly, succinctly articulating a simple set of phrases about the colors yellow, violet, red, purple, and brown. His phrasing stretches the words, evoking a complete sadness when he expresses the final line “Blue so blue, my heart” on a descending scale.

Hodges is his normal self, one of the most distinctive voices of jazz had spawned. His tone made him sound intimate and aloof at the same time, a seemingly opposite combination of emotional depth tempered with a slight astringency. His playing was deceptively simple, typically starting a phrase with a long rising tone, running some fast notes, pausing, slowing down the pace and running a phrase several times, and then shaking loose from what he had just created and sounding the same note in succession with gradually increasing volume and velocity. The result was that he could also put the listener into a space in which clock time was suspended.

The pianist had not touched the keyboard during “Multicolored Rose“ but he opens “Princess Blue” with spare chords accompanied only by arco bass. These two compositions are listed as separate tracks but even the gap between the two numbers does not erase the feeling that one is listening to a two-part suite.

This time there are several featured soloists but it is Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet who ties the sections of “Princess Blue” together through its six sections. Immediately following the introduction Hamilton plays stand-alone for several bars, a rarity in the Ellington repertoire. Unfortunately there is a minor but annoying reverberation in he studio that detracts from the beauty of Hamilton’s clarinet sound reaching well into the altissimo.

What follows is something this critic had not heard before in the Ellington vocabulary, a few bars of the orchestra going through some tricky changes in counterpoint to a single player, Clark Terry. The lone voice and the voiced orchestra border on a harmonic dissonance, as if two different songs were being played, as if Ellington were experimenting with contemporary classical structures. It’s an unexpected but an Ellingtonian event, and of course out of the differentiation synthesis was reached. I was left with the wish –for the  jazz freedom movement had already started its march- that Ellington had expanded and prolonged the use of this device.

The composition moves thorough at least six movements, frequently with Harry Carney on baritone sax underlining the higher brass and clarinet solos. Jimmy Hamilton is intriguing as explores the timbre of the clarinet, including the chalumeau, in several orchestral contexts.

The “Multicolored Rose“- “Princess Blue” combination really does turn into a multi-movement suite, what Ellington often called a tone-poem. It’s too bad that these compositions didn’t enter the repertoire of the band. The versions heard here are slightly tentative and lack the relaxed dynamicism that would have come with concert repetition.  Perhaps Ellington just felt the need to move onto something else.

There’s no such thing as too much Ellington but this CD is not essential listening. It does, however, fill out a part of the catalog that had been missing for too many years.

First Published September 2007

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