Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending some time on a panel of folks discussing Duke Ellington on John Dankosky’s “Where We Live” on WNPR. There was some discussion of his life, persona and relationships and all of that is fine and good, but I was there to talk about the music, a subject I’ll gladly get into at any time. A figure as towering as the Duke does not need a schmoe like me to throw out adjectives to pump up his importance or greatness. Instead, my focus on the show was the musical qualities that have left the most indelible marks on me as a composer, pianist and bandleader.
With visions of Ellingtonia still dancing in my head, I figured I would compile a list here of personal favorites. These are not necessarily the “most important” tracks (indeed, I made a conscious effort to limit myself to ONE track from 1940 for the sake of breadth and diversity) but simply 10 that have deeply impacted me.
Presented in chronological order:
1 ) “Black and Tan Fantasy,” 1927 (Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians)
Considering that his generally agreed-upon “peak years” were more than a decade away, still, this is some rather sophisticated music! And soulful too, especially with Bubber Miley’s famous wah-wah trumpet playing. This won a virtual coin-flip with the era’s other landmark example of this, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” (note, from the mouth of Phil Schaap: correct pronunciation = “toddle-oh”).
2 ) “Tiger Rag,” 1929 (Duke Ellington and the Jungle Band)
Dr. Lewis Porter turned my coat to this in graduate school (as part of the lineage of the tune from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band through the sophistication of Art Tatum in 1933 and on to Charlie Parker and others after that). Featuring so many of his longtime featured soloists (Barney Bigard, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and on and on) this stands as probably my favorite Duke arrangement of a work from outside his own pen or those of his inner circle members.
3 ) “Rockin’ In Rhythm,“ 1931 (The Harlem Footwarmers)
Rockin’ indeed. The refinement of Ellington’s swing feel can be heard vividly here (amidst some great soloing by Barney Bigard and Tricky Sam Nanton); as much credit as Jimmy Blanton deservedly gets for holding down the band’s bottom end a few years later, Wellman Braud was no slouch either, as we can hear with his infectious hook-up with longtime drummer Sonny Greer.
4 ) “Solitude,” 1934 (Duke Ellington Orchestra)
Duke had already composed numerous significant ballads by this point, but to my ears this marks a breakthrough in the level of gentle lyricism at a time when even ballads were still typically rather upbeat.
5 ) “Ko-Ko,” 1940 (Duke Ellington Orchestra)
This whole list could have EASILY been comprised solely of tracks from the so-called “Blanton-Webster” era of the Ellington Orchestra. Indeed, it pains me to leave out “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Airshaft” and easily 20 others. For both textural depth and maximizing the uniqueness of the solo voices available to him (in this case Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam Nanton and Jimmy Blanton) this is the “desert island” choice.
6 ) “Reflections In D” from Piano Reflections, 1953 (duet with Wendell Marshall)
My first in-depth exposure to Duke the pianist (outside the context of his Orchestra) came through this record. From the gnarly swing of “Janet” to the aching lyricism of “Melancholia,” this whole album is a gem, but I have a particular soft spot for this soothing, harmonically and melodically rich composition.
7 ) “Part IV a.k.a. Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige, 1958 (Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mahalia Jackson)
The spiritual side of Ellington (the composer and the man) is well-documented and that too could easily get its own Top 10 list. This track (partnered with its instrumental counterpart from the same album, featuring Ray Nance’s violin) was assigned to me by my teacher George Raccio to learn and transcribe when I was 17, and it has been etched in my brain ever since. This may give me a soft spot for the track, but I think that the power of the composition and of Mahalia Jackson’s voice would lead most people to the same reverent conclusion nonetheless.
8 ) “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)” from Money Jungle, 1962 (trio with Charles Mingus, Max Roach)
This was recorded less than 2 weeks before Ellington’s celebrated collaboration with John Coltrane, and collective these two albums demonstrate Duke’s funky piano and era-bending versatility. This haunting piece is probably my favorite new composition from the final 15 (maybe 20?) years of Duke’s life and shows a wonderful balance of restraint and edginess.
9 ) “Isfahan” from Far East Suite, 1966 (Duke Ellington Orchestra)
How liberally should Billy Strayhorn be represented on a list like this? I don’t know how to answer that question – in the end, there were certainly dozens of top-shelf choices for that and I narrowed it down to this one (in a toss-up with “Star-Crossed Lovers” from the Such Sweet Thunder project a decade prior) among a trove of achingly gorgeous Strayhorn ballads featuring the lead voice of Johnny Hodges on alto.
10 ) “Blues for New Orleans” from New Orleans Suite, 1970 (Duke Ellington Orchestra)
This whole album shows that Duke still “had it” as a writer, even after Strayhorn’s passing. This track in particular also shows how gritty the band could get, featuring quite possibly the nastiest Johnny Hodges I have ever heard, plus some soulful organ by Wild Bill Davis.