Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Listening to Duke Ellington - The Conny Plank Session, '70

Duke Ellington in Berlin's Tempelhof, Feb 15, 1963.

The Duke and the Dom

Death is not the end. If one doesn't agree with such statement from a theological point of view, it's impossible to reject it from a jazzological one. The evidence to the argument is a wealth of material discovered and released years after the passing of jazz musicians, anything from first class unissued studio recordings (which is the subject of this post) to poorly recorded airchecks whose sound of hiss is sometimes stronger than the lead saxophone. If posthumous releases are signs of life, then no other jazz musician has been more alive than Ellington whose death in 1974 was the beginning of a new musical life with many first-time issues hitting the market, mounting to hundreds of hours of good quality live and studio sessions.

One of these momentous and (almost) first-time issues, recorded in Germany in 1970, will be released on 10 July 2015 by Grönland Records, exactly 45 years after the fact.

Imagine the Duke standing next to the Dom, the celestial Cologne Cathedral, just two years after his second Sacred Concert and three years shy from the Third and the last, gazing at the dark, wounded stones, looking pensive. Then a young record engineer by the name of Conny Plank approaches him, invites him over to Rhenus studio, and play him some tracks. The mutual respect grows, Duke begins to like Conny's sound, and he records 6 tracks (2 compositions x 3 takes each) at the young man's studio.

The young engineer was on his way to international fame when later he recorded Kraftwerk, NEU!, Cluster, Eurythmics, Ultravox. (If you forgive my ignorance, none of these groups I've heard before. Browsing them on the YouTube wasn't a terribly rewarding experience. Sometimes I feel It wasn't entirely bad for me that western music was banned when and where I was growing up. Instead, I spent the first two decades of my life listening over and over to a few tapes of Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong.)

The Music 

The year 1970 was a very special one in Ellington's recording career, probably his best year in music since 1967. These crucial and somehow adventurous late period recordings in which Ellington did anything but compromise were mostly issued posthumously which means they are still unjustifiably underrated. Even the latest Duke Ellington biography by Terry Teachout fails to acknowledge the late Ellington period as artistically genuine and musically significant. Like the Conny Plank session, there is a certain brooding mood to them which make them utterly different from Ellington's recordings of the past.

Conny Plank. Photo © Christa Fast
Since the late 1960s, Ellington had made a few crucial changes to his orchestra and its instrumentation by, for instance, adding organ and introducing more rockish beats to his music, performed solidly by Rufus "Speedy" Jones on drums.

In 1970, if the band was grey and weary, yet that unique
Ellington sound, the magical solos and the occasional outburst of musical energy was not totally absent. In live concerts, the Orchestra was more conservative, overplaying classics of Ellington repertoire such as  ASCAP Medley, Satin Doll, and Perdido but in studio they were as vigorous as 1950.

The trip to Cologne was a return visit after a November 10, 1969 concert. If in 1969 he had preferred performing the old, safe tunes to the new ones, in 1970, Ellington presented some of the material from his latest masterpiece New Orleans Suite (recorded during April and May), such as Portrait of Sidney Bechet, plus other pieces not often played in an Ellington concert.

The Plank Session was meant to record two of the new compositions (Alerado and Afrique) which like most of post-Strayhorn recordings are mood pieces and visual ideas in sounds rather than pieces of beautiful melodies and tight harmonies with which the band was known since the 1930s.

Of the two compositions included in this new release, Afrique later found it's way to Ellington's last masterpiece album The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and it featured one of the last memorable solos by Paul Gonsalves.

The other piece, Alerdo was composed by organist Wild Bill Davis. After the composer himself plays the first chorus on organ, the second chorus is taken over by Norris Turney on flute, an instrument never used by Ellington until the later years. Other soloists are Canadian Fred Stone (flugelhorn) and Harold Ashbey (tenor sax) who was a crossover between Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves.

The third take of the song is completely reshuffled in terms of instrumentation with (probably) Turney sharing the solo spot with Davis, this time playing the alto saxophone.

The various takes of each song show modification, variations and even changes in instrumentation.

While listening to the album, I realised that two of the takes were previously issued on Storyville's New York New York CD. The Grönland release features those two, plus two other unreleased takes of each which are musically superior to Storyville's version.

Alerado (take 2) courtesy of Storyville Records

Afrique (take 2) courtesy of Storyville Records

Now compare it to the Plank version of Afrique (take 3 - vocal version):

If you listen carefully, you'll probably notice that they are exactly the same recording, but the second one has an overdubbed vocal part, probably featuring DeVonne Gardner singing soprano.

My guess is that the Orchestra have recorded this in the morning of July 9, 1970, and then in the afternoon they have driven 40 km to north to perform in Düsseldorf where they also played Afrique live.

A busy schedule and tense touring dates couldn't stop Duke from thinking and breathing music. This 30-minute long session, sandwiched between two dates and two countries (the next stop was Italy), is a fine documentation of that spirit, but also of the process in which some of Ellington's late classics were recorded.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, most illuminating post. Best, pete