Ellington Swings at Coventry Cathedral

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ELLINGTON: New World A-Comin’ / Duke Ellington, pno / Come Sunday. Light (Montage). Come Easter. Tell Me It’s the Truth. In the Beginning God. West Indian Pancake. La Plus Belle Africaine / Willie “Cat” Anderson, Cootie Williams, Herbie Jones, Mercer Ellington, tpt; Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, tb; Chuck Conners, bs-tb; Russell Procope, a-sax/cl; Johnny Hodges, a-sax; Paul Gonsalves, t-sax; Harry Carney, bar-sax/cl/bs-cl; Ellington, pno; John Lamb, bs; Sam Woodyard, dm; George Webb, Cliff Adams Singers, voc / Storyville 1018448 (live: Coventry, February 21, 1966)

The Duke Ellington Orchestra went through several changes as it moved through the 1960s, from impressive and inventive suites to accompanying singers like Frank Sinatra and Alice Babs, an album with John Coltrane, and playing imaginative arrangements of current pop tunes and, by this point, programming sacred concerts. Ellington was always very religious in his own way and wore his heart on his sleeve. From the time he wrote “Come Sunday” as part of his Black, Brown & Beige suite in 1943, he had evolved, by this point, to expanding on religious Christian themes in full-length concert works. This way-stop at Coventry Cathedral in early 1966 gave him the opportunity to present three of his religious pieces mixed in with a current favorite of his, La Plus Belle Africaine, and other excerpts from Black, Brown & Beige.

The concert here opens with one of Ellington’s most diverse and interesting piano solo pieces, New World A-Comin’, which begins as an out-tempo ballad before moving into swinging sections, but the music keeps shifting and changing both thematically and rhythmically. As usual with Ellington, the music is not technically difficult—he never had the kind of technique that could compete with such solo piano masters as Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell or George Shearing—but it is musically complex, and that in itself is interesting. It sounds as if he were spontaneously composing at the piano. (Interestingly, Charles Mingus’ great piano solo album is not that far removed from the way Ellington plays here.)

Come Sunday, the quasi-spiritual piece from 1943’s Black, Brown & Beige, underwent many transformations by the band in the years since. This version swings more than most, includes a brief paraphrase of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the introduction, and features Russell Procope in an extended clarinet solo, the latter portion of which has Cootie Williams growling with a plunger mute in the background. After a bridge played by Ellington, the tempo comes way down and Johnny Hodges plays an exceptional alto solo. An extempore, out-of-tempo trumpet interlude (possibly Herbie Jones) leads into the swinging rendition of Light (Montage), an excellent performance with the band swinging in a relaxed yet uptempo fashion.

Come Easter is another of his jazz-religious ballads. The piece was entirely new for this concert; it is played very well, but there’s not a lot to it other than a pretty theme. Tell Me It’s the Truth, which opens as an alto sax-trombone duet played by long-time Ellington stalwarts Hodges and Lawrence Brown, is an unusual piece as being in either a fast 3 or a moderate 6/8, an odd tempo for the band. The music has a sort of gospel-blues feel to it.

In the Beginning God starts out in swinging fashion, but quickly slows down for a deeply-felt baritone sax solo by the great Harry Carney, who in my view never got the credit he deserved for pioneering his instrument in jazz. (When I saw the Ellington band in person in 1973, I stood at the rail near the bandstand of the Meadowbrook, looking directly at Carney. It was amazing; he was 63 years old at the time, but his face was relatively unlined and he looked like a man in his late 30s.) Procope plays a clarinet solo, followed by a somewhat strained-sounding baritone singer named George Webb. After his first chorus, the band picks up and swings behind him. He has a fairly pleasant tone and good diction, but that strained tonal emission is hard to take. He then has a speaking section in which he lists the things that didn’t exist before the creation of the universe, such as “no TV commercials, no cows, no bulls, no birds, no bees, no people.” He hits a nice high note at the end, though, before Paul Gonsalves (who I also saw in person with the band) swings mightily, with really cool rhythmic, spoken interjections by the Cliff Adams Singers. This was the opening piece of Ellington’s First Sacred Concert the previous year (1965), and all in all it works remarkably well.

Front-Cover-32367A somewhat theatrical trumpet fanfare, followed by a clarinet trill, opens the second half of this piece, followed by a magisterial open trumpet solo by Willie “Cat” Anderson, who then takes it into the stratosphere as only he could. The third section, actually a separate piece played in the Sacred Concert as Books of the Bible, features the chorus intoning the names of the apostles who the “gospels” were named after, along with the titles of other Biblical books. This, as well as Tell Me It’s the Truth, New World A-Comin’ and this updated version of Come Sunday, also comes from the First Sacred Concert. This morphs into the uptempo section of In the Beginning God, bringing this quasi-religious suite to a close. (Ellington made it very clear that his Sacred Concerts were not “jazz masses,” but his jazz impressions of religious themes.)

West Indian Pancake, another swinging 6/8 piece and one I hadn’t heard before, comes next. It’s a fairly simple tune, embellished by Ellington with some nifty trombone section counterpoint. Gonsalves plays another excellent solo. The concert ends with an excellent performance of La Plus Belle Africaine, one of Ellington’s most interesting later pieces, which became a concert staple by 1969. John Lamb plays an exceptionally interesting, almost bitonal, bowed bass solo on this one with a great deal of chromatic movement.

All in all, an excellent concert. Personally, I liked the programming of the pieces of the First Sacred Concert very much here, and of course all the solos are different from the recording of that work for RCA Victor—an album that, surprisingly, sold very poorly at the time.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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