Reviewing Ellington's English concerts has always in the past been an unenviable job for any critic: one must always bear in mind the historical perspective of Ellington's work, the immense number of fine jazz compositions he has produced throughout the years, the innumerable wonderful records he has made, the many things he has introduced to jazz which are now part of its stock-in-trade, the way he has consistently pioneered jazz as an art form throughout his career, and how for several decades he has led the most admired large orchestra in jazz. Against this one has had to set the actual facts of the Ellington concerts with which we have been presented. These have nearly always in the past been perfunctory affairs, with everyone concerned doing less than they can and producing some considerable feelings of dissatisfaction; it doesn't matter that they were maybe better than the average run of jazz concerts, they were less than good by Ellington's own standards. If you work consistently over a large period of time to create a set of standards you must in the end be judged by these standards, not by others.
It is very pleasant then, to be able to report that this most recent concert tour was one that did not disappoint when measured by Ellington's standards. Though the programme still had some amount of indifferent material it was pretty obvious throughout that Ellington is once again vigorously in charge of his orchestra.
It might be of some use at this point to try and put down some observations about Ellington's programme planning and his way of working on concerts; we have seen enough of them over here by now to be able to draw some conclusions about how the band functions.
The first, and most important, point is that though Ellington has created an astonishing number of jazz compositions in his career, the actual size of the band's library is not great, and probably amounts to no more than thirty or so items at any given period. New items are brought in, old ones dusted off and reorganised to suit current needs, but though the band's library is potentially so vast, in practice it is no bigger than, say, Basie's. Also, many items, particularly from the post-war period, tend to fall together in a kind of iconography - the Harry Carney feature, for instance, which might at different times be Golden Feather, Paradise, The Telecasters, or the old standby Sophisticated Lady, depending on which happens to be in the library, or the Cat Anderson feature, one of so many similar vehicles, or the Hodges features - a kind of repetition of effort which ensures that a certain part of every programme will be not so much new as just different, kept interesting only by the genius of Ellington's orchestrating.
Another point about the band's policy, and this a more disturbing one, is Ellington's reliance these days upon effects which no longer exist for him. It is fairly obvious now that he has not got the voices to create for that he had at one time; this is particularly true of the brasses, where in all honesty he has only three voices left now, Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson and Lawrence Brown. Also, no individualist of note has been added to the band since Sam Woodyard's arrival some eight years ago - Cootie can hardly be classed as new to the Ellington band - and these things have led to a great deal of imitation. Rolf Ericson seems to have been brought in, at least for this concert tour, mainly to imitate Clark Terry on Perdido, while Lawrence Brown has to do the work of both Tizol and Nanton in addition to being himself. This, of course, is going to be a permanent problem in the Ellington band now. The age that gave rise to the styles that Ellington has used so well has gone, and Duke now either cannot or will not find any more individualists to write for. There are such men around in jazz, plenty of them too, and Ellington is one man who has enough imagination to take them and fit them into the very complex mechanism of his orchestra: whether he will or not remains to be seen.
To turn to happier things, however; the band, with all its blind spots and omissions, can still perform beautifully, as this tour showed. Ellington himself proved to be as inventive a composer as ever. The programmes on this tour included a large slice of his as yet unfinished and half untitled suite Far East Impressions, and some of these vignettes were fascinating indeed. Ispahan is a Hodges vehicle, though more carefully constructed than a lot of them, and one which manages to involve the alto-player in what is going on around him; another is a Carney feature, again well above average. Best of all is a piece with a heavy, ominous rhythm, harmonically built around a series of pedal points, with a light counter-melody by Jimmy Hamilton over it and which grew to a massive, shouting climax. This was Ellington writing at very nearly the top of his form; a very exhilarating experience indeed. Also new to British audiences was Skillipoop, from Ellington's Timon of Athens music, which turned out to be Woodyard's vehicle for this tour, and on which he sometimes played very well and imaginatively, sometimes not.
The high spot of the concerts, however, was not this new music, excellent and intriguing though most of it was. The big moment belonged to Ellington's 1952 composition, Harlem. Most Ellington_ admirers must by now be familiar with this work, but to hear it performed in person, with all its lustrous tonal effects and brilliantly sustained composition, was a revelation. On the early concerts in the tour__ the band was at times a bit ragged, since this work had apparently been put in the library specially for this tour and had been given a minimum of rehearsal; however, by the final concerts the band had hit a magnificent groove and were giving this difficult score a breathtaking performance.
Though the roster of Ellington's major soloists might have diminished, he still has an impressive array of instrumental talent available. Johnny Hodges, perhaps the most illustrious star in this particular firmament, played with his customary aplomb on Ispahan and a series_ of encores which almost always included Time's a-wastin', though he seemed complettly detached from the rest of the orchestra for much of the rest of the programme. Cootie Williams played consistently well on his features, Caravan, and at some concerts the New concerto for Cootie, as well as in the long opening medley of Jungle Band reminiscences, Black and tan fantasy, Creole love call and The mooche.
Paul Gonsalves, in addition to his non-stop up-tempo solos, was doing Happy reunion as his feature number; he can be a very effective, even moving, ballad player when he is allowed to do slow numbers. His tone and technique are still improving, even at this late stage of his career, and his ability to run the changes at fast tempos is becoming quite phenomenal. One might not agree with all he is doing, but there is no doubt that he is doing it just about as well as it is possible to do it. In what he does he has no equal; he is now, fully fledged, one of Ellington's eccentrics. Also showing many signs of improvement under Ellington's leadership is bassist Ernie Shepard; his tone and choice of notes are now most impressive. Less impressive, but certainly remarkable was his odd vocal, highly reminiscent of Betty Roche, on Take the A train.
Duke Ellington himself, possibly inspired by the recent wave of critical praise for his piano work, created some very fine solos, notably on Caravan, as well as providing brilliant backings for his soloists. On Harlem his conducting was quite fascinating, and revealed the tight grasp he has of his orchestra when necessary. He dictated all the tempos with great authority and, unusual in the permissive atmosphere of the Ellington band, kept a tight rein on Sam Woodyard to see that the tempos, once set, were strictly adhered to.
So here we are once again at the end of another Ellington tour. This time, no doubt of it, Ellington has given us good value, and at last we have seen his orchestra at something like its best. What an impressive experience it has been too; we've had to wait a long time but it's been worth it.
Duke Ellington (p); Cootie Williams, Rolf Ericson, Cat Anderson, Herbie Jones (tpt); Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, Buster Cooper (tbn); Johnny Hodges (alt); Russell Procope (alt, clt); Jimmy Hamilton (ten, clt); Paul Gonsalves (ten); Harry Carney (bar, bs-clt); Ernie Shepard (bs, vcl); Sam Woodyard (d).
Jazz Monthly, April 1964