Big band giant thinks small, plays big.

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Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Writing about a Duke Ellington big band album a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an album I’d discovered in the process, a collaboration with John Coltrane. At the time, I said I thought I’d be buying it soon. Turns out I was right.

Ellington’s name being synonymous with big band, the mere existence of this album stripped down to a quartet setting—piano, sax, bass and drums—was a surprise to me. This despite the fact that I’d heard the opening track countless times, perhaps the most beautiful recording of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood ever made. I guess I just hadn’t ever stuck around to hear whatever radio DJ read the credits. But according to noted jazz writer A.B. Spellman, late in his life, Ellington started “having collaborations with some of the other musicians who were of his stature, particularly some of the modernists.”

interstellar_space_sm.jpgAnd Coltrane was arguably the quintessential modernist. Even though he died in 1967, there is music of his I would hold up against the most out there avant garde saxophone being played today. The adventurous—even savage—all out blowing on Interstellar Space, for instance. But he was also capable of heartachingly beautiful lyricism, and Ellington brings it out in this fine album. Coltrane himself said of the recording date, “I’d really like to get into all Duke’s songs. I’ve a feeling there’s a lot to find out in his music. He has covered so much ground, and if you could work at it you maybe could really relate to it in five years or so.”

For the 1962 recording date, Ellington and Coltrane each brought their own rhythm sections. Bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard for Ellington, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on drums for Coltrane. Accomplished musicians all, they swapped out rhythm duties from track to track. More finely tuned jazz ears than mine can and have pointed out differences in their playing on the album. For me, the bigger marvel is just how seamless it all sounds.

And the sound? The best of straightahead jazz, tinged with the understanding and love of blues both giants had. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a mix of jumping uptempo tunes and stellar ballads. My only serious complaint is it’s over too soon, clocking in at just under 40 minutes.

The saxophone is such a dominant instrument—and Coltrane such a dominant sax player—that it’s easy to overlook Ellington’s contributions on this album. Especially when it’s on the kitchen boombox and you’re busy slicing/stirring/measuring/mixing. And throughout much of the music, Ellington is happy to remain in the background, giving Coltrane his head. His role is more that of composer and instigator. Five of the seven tracks are Ellington compositions, in fact, including a tune written specifically for the session, Take the Coltrane [as one writer said, “get it?”]. One of the two remaining tunes is by longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the other by Coltrane.

But active listening yields beautifully spare, modern solos by Ellington. And his playing in support of Coltrane’s solos is brilliant, beautiful but restrained, never getting in the way, but—in true jazz conversation—sometimes nudging his saxophone in certain directions. Small wonder then that noted jazz critic and historian Gene Lees said that Coltrane’s playing may have “undergone another spurt of rapid evolution” as a result of this relatively brief association with Ellington.

For my part, my appreciation of these two jazz giants has undergone its own spurt of rapid evolution since buying to this album. Use this link to listen to some samples of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. You just might undergo an evolution of your own.

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2 Responses to “Big band giant thinks small, plays big.”

  1. Toni Says:

    My late husband Bob would have loved you. Not only your taste in music, but your thinking and writing.

  2. Terry B Says:

    Toni, I can tell from your writing how much you loved Bob, so I take this comment as the highest of praise.

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