Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13: Duke Ellington, "The Great Paris Concert"

Artist: Duke Ellington
Album: The Great Paris Concert
Year: 1963 (recorded), 1973 (released)
Label: Atlantic

For whatever reason, the citizens of Paris, France did a far better job of bringing out the best that jazz musicians had to offer. With countless amazing performances emerging from the city during the heyday of jazz, nearly every live jazz recording from the city and era is nothing short of phenomenal. Among this long list of artists who recorded their shows in Paris, jazz legend Duke Ellington and his band did so during a three week run in the city in 1963. Far and away the greatest composer of the jazz era, Duke Ellington's name is nearly synonymous with the jazz genre. Having worked with the greatest artists of the jazz era, from Ella Fitzgerald to John Coltrane, as well as the likes of Frank Sinatra and even scoring the Marx Brothers film, A Day At The Races, few artists can even come close to the wide ranging impact of Ellington. Having recorded nearly one hundred albums during his career that spanned almost fifty years, it is hard to choose a single album that represents everything that made Ellington so amazing. However, the recording of his bands' 1963 performances in Paris, known as The Great Paris Concert, is undoubtedly one of the greatest live performances ever, as well as one of his finest moments as a composer and band leader.

Following World War Two, Ellington struggled to regain the prominence he had enjoyed for decades. Trying to find his sound again, his career was revitalized by his legendary performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Following the performance, Ellington spent the rest of his career touring the world, and spent a considerable amount of that time playing all over Europe. The Great Paris Concert performances occurred during February of 1963, but did not get released until 1973, when Atlantic Records released a double album, containing twenty tracks from the performance. Later, in 1989, an additional ten tracks, which had previously been available on Duke Ellington's Greatest Hits, were added to the album, and this re-release represents the definitive version of the album/performance. The only other difference is that on the re-release, the songs have been equalized differently, and it makes the transitions between songs a bit rougher, though the album still flows quite well from track to track. The songs found on the album are almost all unedited in terms of length, and this gives the listener an amazing view into the stunning talents of both Ellington, as well as a each member of his band. Whether it is his bright horn sections or the beautiful violin work of fellow jazz legend, Ray Nance, the music is absolutely superb, and it is a testament to the skill of both Ellington, as well as the entire band.

Duke Ellington's orchestra was heavy on the brass, containing multiple trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and saxophone players. This gives the music the ability to be loud and swinging, or full and soulful, depending on the demands of the composition. While countless notable musicians served time in the ranks of Ellington's orchestra over the years, the ensemble he has with him for the Paris dates is virtually second to none. As one of the mainstays of Ellington's orchestra, William "Cat" Anderson is by far one of the finest trumpet players in history. His bright, clean tone and fantastic improvisations and solos stand as the highlight of many of the tracks on The Great Paris Concert. Another long standing member of Ellington's orchestra was saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who spent nearly forty years playing brilliantly with Ellington. Working with the likes of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, trumpet player Charles "Cootie" Williams stands as one of the greatest trumpet players in the history of jazz. While he is sensational throughout the album, Williams takes center stage and delivers a brilliant, soulful performance on the aptly titled, "Concerto For Cootie." Whether he was singing, soloing, or leading his section, trombone master, Lawrence Brown was one of the most dynamic and talented pieces of the orchestra, and it is abundantly clear in his performance on this album. The other notable musician on The Great Paris Concert is clarinet master, Russell Procope. As another member of the orchestra with a significant tenure, he remains one of the most important members of the orchestra's history, and his playing on the album is absolutely sensational. Though there are a number of other musicians found on The Great Paris Concert, each plays perfectly, and the resulting sound is a perfect example of how amazing a band leader and composer there lived within Duke Ellington.

Ellington himself was nothing short of a musical genius, always claiming that he played "American music," as opposed to calling it jazz. Ellington is an icon of the world of music for many reasons, beginning with the fact that he led his band from the early 1920's up until his death in 1974. His catalog of compositions contain many of the most famous songs in history, and songs like "Satin Doll," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "The Mooche" can all be found on The Great Paris Concert. Ellington leads the band superbly, as he occasionally shouts out to the band, and it is clear that he is having a blast the entire time. Known for using his orchestra to experiment with new sounds and styles, no genre or mood seems off limits to Ellington or any member of his orchestra. From bop to jazz to swing, the band doesn't miss a note, and Ellington's compositions are sensational, regardless of style of genre. Much of this amazing sound and playing is due to the fact that Ellington wrote many of his pieces to specifically spotlight individual talents within his orchestra. While all of this is true, one cannot look past the fact that, along with being a brilliant composer and band leader, Ellington is a sensational pianist. Whether standing back and letting his band show off or taking solos on his own, Ellington plays flawlessly throughout, and his style has served as the inspiration for countless musicians over the last century. While he proves to be one of the greatest jazz/swing pianists ever, the fact that he is so willing to step back and let his band members shine is one of the many reasons why Duke Ellington and The Great Paris Concert remain so fantastic, decades after its release.

Few names are as instantly recognizable and so easily associated with the genre for which they are famous than Duke Ellington. Standing as one of the greatest and most influential composers and musicians in the history of music, there are few other figures who can be mentioned in the same breath. Responsible for writing many of the most famous songs in history, as well as countless innovations in style and sound, the impact that Ellington had in both music, as well as the world in general, is truly immeasurable. Composing songs in every style from swing to bop to slower, more modal jazz, it is almost impossible to find any Ellington piece that is anything short of amazing. Surrounding himself with the finest musicians in the land, many of the songs are purposefully written to spotlight the talents of a specific player, and this altruistic approach is one of the many aspects that makes Ellington such a legend. Pulling thirty songs from Ellington's orchestra's three week stint in Paris, The Great Paris Concert offers a brilliant cross-section of the bands' talents, as well as the variety in stylistic approaches that make Ellington's music so distinctive. While it is nearly impossible to pick a single "best" album from the five decades of music that he recorded, the release of Duke Ellington's 1963 performances in Paris, The Great Paris Concert, stands as one of the greatest live documents ever, as well as one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Rockin' In Rhythm," "All Of Me," and "Perdido."

No comments: