The debate about the African elements of jazz, the most original musical form created in the twentieth century, has been a perennial concern of many serious music lovers. I have spent an entire lifetime from my teens until now that I am in my late seventies mining the extraordinarily harmonious treasures of the repertoire of that remarkable musical legacy. If there is one truly heroic truth that I can repeat over and over again as being something that I have discovered over the decades it is that listening to Duke Ellington’s band and especially his extended compositions is in itself a lesson in history.
Now with YouTube and other streaming sources available to anyone who wishes to extend their knowledge and understanding of the music without much stress listening to the great Ellingtonian repertoire is even more accessible than it was in my youth. The CD Ellington Uptown (Columbia CK 87066) is one of the most enjoyable examples of Duke Ellington’s work that I can recommend to anyone, and not just because it is an impeccable collection of great music but also because the presence of the African impulse in that work is particularly notable.
“The values of improvisation and rhythmic complexity inherited by the music from its African roots were rendered even more relevant to the values that his compositions exhibited”
The exciting percussive arrangement of Skin Deep, the very first selection on the album, demonstrates the integration of thunderous solo drumming by Louie Bellson with complex instrumental phraseology that must have been particularly innovative at the time when it was performed. This was sometime in the late forties to the early fifties, a time when the formal shape of jazz was being transformed in an extraordinary period of innovative expression. At that period jazz became a more cerebral performing art and much more reflective than its early dance-driven forms.
Ellington’s true genius was in his ability to marshal both the intellectual and the sensuous power of sound into a rhythmic whole that is both exciting and profoundly complex at the same time. In this achievement the truth is that the values of improvisation and rhythmic complexity inherited by the music from its African roots were rendered even more relevant to the values that his compositions exhibited.
This is illustrated here in the beautiful lyricism of Take The A Train, one of Duke’s most complex and yet most popular and widely performed pieces. The vocal performance followed by an instrumental interpretation of the popular tune sets the pace for the immediate follow-up. This is taken to remarkable heights of orchestral performance of A Tone Parallel to Harlem and Perdido two of his most durable masterpieces.
This ends the first part of the album, which sets the pace for the follow up, and is of particular relevance to our discourse here. These performances that serve as the introductory section are somehow more advanced in technique and execution than that which follows. A short but dramatically illustrative performance in tribute to the earlier era of ragtime jazz which bears the descriptive title Before My Time is followed by a piece entitled Later which serves to illustrate definitive advances in complexity of style and execution in performance. These partner pieces serve as an interlude before the main surprise here.
Duke’s closeness to his African roots might not have been a public issue for critics who studied and analysed his music when he was making waves in the world of western cultural notoriety and fame but the final section of this album poses questions about any failure to do so. In 1947 the Government of the Republic of Liberia was celebrating the first century of the founding of the nation by freed slaves from America. It commissioned Ellington to compose an orchestral tribute which emerged as The Liberian Suite.
This was released as Ellington’s second long-play album in 1948 and has been described thus by an anonymous on-line reviewer,
“the ideas on “Liberian” are more direct and easier to absorb, creating a work that is more cohesive and easier to follow than some of Ellington’s more sprawling musical architectures”
The suite is one of the most neglected major works of any great composer of the twentieth century but the performance on record here must make us wonder why. Listen and wonder.