Tuesday, October 23, 2012

10 Songs For Duke

drawing by Naiel Ibarolla

"The worst thing about Duke Ellington's death," lamented Whitney Balliett "was that he, of all people, turned out to be mortal." Now it may sounds a cliche of I state that his music, forty years after his death, continues to live. No, that's somehow too obvious and not so dukish.

Another way of proving that the "profound, ageless, ongoing joyousness and originality of his music" doesn't seem to be retired is listening to the countless number of tribute albums and songs, recreations of his work, and tracing the influence he left on people who came after him and also his contemporaries. (He even awed musicians before him too - listen to what Willie The Lion Smith says, as my fifth choice.)

For that purpose, let's start with a list of ten tribute songs to this "brilliant eccentric," Duke Ellington. The list can expand in every imaginable direction and I hope some of you dear readers name your favorite "for Duke" songs at the end of this post.

Duke loved telling stories, so let's have one for the end. When Ben Webster (one of the guests of this tribute playlist) - who was playing with Teddy Wilson and dreaming to be a part of Duke Ellington Orchestra - received a message from Duke to go and see him, he felt twenty years younger: "I was drunk at the time, but the news sobered me up in a second. I went to see Ellington in the dressing room of the theatre he was playing at the time. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to the rehearsal tomorrow morning?’ Then I realised I had to tell Teddy Wilson that I was leaving him. To be able to do that, I had to get drunk all over again."

This anecdote tells something about Duke's music that can make you emotionally drunk, and then few minutes later, leave you totally sober. This is the feeling evident in the homages I've gathered here: they all alter between ecstasy and calculated movements. Or both are the same? 


Duke On My Mind (1976)
Claude Bolling
With the Help of My Friends

Actually the recording, featuring tributes to fellow pianists, was a showcase for Bolling to demonstrate his technical abilities and versatility by playing (or rather imitating) the style of the giants of keyboard. Though here and on this version it is the orchestration and arrangement which should be taken as the real "homage" to the man.

One For the Duke (1960)
Johnny Hodges
Masters of Jazz, Vol. 9

A club date with Ben Webster resulted one of the most laid-back portrayal's of Duke by members or ex-members of the orchestra. The music gives back to us that solace and tranquility of the Ellingtonia that was constantly quoted by those of Hodges, Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, Harry Carney in their solo careers.

The Duke (195?)
Dave Brubeck
March of Times [TV show]

Though more famous for later treatment of Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, it was originally written by Brubeck and for many years was a vital part of his repertoire. Brubeck used Ellington's songbook during many concerts and recording sessions and it was Duke who brought the latest issue of Time magazine with Brubeck on the cover to his hotel room. Duke was the first Time candidate for the cover but the idea was rejected on racial grounds. Brubeck always felt guilty about that, but this joyous tribute redeems his or anybody else's soul.

Time For Duke (2000)
Mal Waldron
Riding A Zephyr

The song originally appeared on Quadrologue at Utopia, a 1989 live album featuring Jim Pepper. It was re-recorded with added lyrics in 2000, this time with Judi Silvano as the singer which is the version you are going to hear now. The piano, as one expect from Mal, is delightful and enchanting and the lyrics beautifully explains why Ellington.

Duke For Dinner (1944)
Erroll Garner
Classics 850

It is almost like a dream, but wasn't Duke's music like an extended dream itself? It is also known as Duke and Sweet Pea for dinner which its extension is a reference to Duke's right hand man Billy Strayhorn. "Garner avoids direct quotations," wrote Antol Schenker in his 1995 liner notes to this recording, "but [Garner] uses chords and interpolations from several of [Duke and Strayhorn] compositions, especially Take the A Train and Perdido."

Portrait Of the Duke (1949)
Willie "The Lion" Smith
Classics 1229

In Paris, France, The Lion dedicates this song to Duke and along with masterfully-developed stride tribute to the maestro, his unstoppable notes, shouts, bragging and story-telling kicks off.

One For the Guv'nor (1969)
Ben Webster
The Holland Sessions

Recorded on May 26, 1969, in Heemstede, Nederland, the whole session meant to be an homage to the "Guv'nor" and Webster's ex-boss, Ellington. Jacques Schols is on bass. John Engels plays drums, while Cees Slinger's piano remains an essential part of this masterpiece. An invigorating love letter with some curse words in it. 

Blues For Duke (1969)
Thelonious Monk
Berliner Jazztage Festival

In 1969 the Berliner Jazztage Festival held a musical ceremony to celebrate the 70th birthday of Duke. Some of Duke's children appeared on stage as solo artists, or in this case together, to show what they have learned from the maestro.

In 1955 Thelonious Monk on his first Riverside date recorded a handful of Duke compositions that according to Orrin Keepnews ages were spent by Monk, simply picking out the tunes! Here he returns under the spotlight again.

Probably the most memorable take of the Jazztage was this Blues for Duke in which pianists Thelonious Monk and Joe Turner on two pianos (accompanied with Han Rettenbacher on bass and Stu Martin on drums) reminded us of one of the main characteristics of Ellingtonia: clashes of styles and sounds in the band which led to the outburst of energy and emotion. Such sonic explosion can only be controlled by starting a dance - the ultimate effect of the Ellington sound.

For Ellington (1999)
John Lewis

Masterful and absorbing which sounds exactly like Lewis, but at the same time one starts to wonder how much of the "original" sound of giants like Lewis is in debt to Ellington. Also For Ellington contains a historical narrative in which various forms of jazz piano is graciously demonstrated until its reach the last part when the love for Ellington is manifested in hammering the keys for a touching, anthem-like finale.

Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love (1974)
Charles Mingus
Changes Two

When Mingus was twelve, he heard Ellington on the radio and fell instantly in love with Duke's music. Later, he wrote at least three songs for Duke, with much more variations based on them. Duke's choice and later An open letter to Duke are among them, which the latter was issued on groundbreaking Mingus Ah Um (1959). One of the last masterpieces of Mingus' pen and passion is this soul-lifting homage to the beauty and humanity of Ellington, both as the musician and the man.

Listen to Spotify playlist of all the ten songs above here.

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