Album 6 – Ellington at Newport

ALBUM TITLE: Ellington at Newport ‘56

ARTIST NAME: Duke Ellington

YEAR OF RELEASE: 1956

Favourite Song:

Holly: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

Kelly: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

ALBUM HISTORY:

Ellington at Newport was recorded on July 7th 1956 and released later that year, and featured Duke Ellington and his band’s live performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.  It’s seen as one of the greatest performances of Ellington’s career.  By the 1950s a lot of big bands had called it quits due to the fledgling popularity of the genre.  Ellington and his band had no record contracts at the time and were making very little money when approached with the offer to play at the relatively newly conceived festival.  The first set clocked in at 8 minutes and 30 seconds and was played without the full band as a few of the members could not be found at the beginning of the show.  After a short break the rest of the band was rounded up and the show began in earnest with Take the A Train, followed by a suite of Festival Junction, Blues to Be There and Newport Up, which was played to lukewarm reception.   After Sophisticated Lady and Day In Day Out, Duke premiered an experiment that he had been modifying for years, which was two blues numbers together called Transbluecency joined together by a tenor saxophone solo in the hands of Paul Gonsalves.  Gonsalves’ solo was the absolute climax of the set, soloing for 27 choruses backed by bass, drums and accent chords from the piano before collapsing in exhaustion.  Ellington soloed on piano before the rest of the band joined back in.  By that point the audience had collectively lost their minds, dancing in the aisles, refusing to let the band end their set.  They continued with I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), Jeep’s Blues and Tulip or Turnip.  After again refusing to calm themselves, Duke finished up with Skin Deep and Mood Indigo concluding by saying “You are very beautiful, very sweet and we do love you madly”. 

In 1996 it was discovered that only about 40% of the album is a live recording, the rest of it recorded in-studio with canned audience applause.  The reason behind this was that Ellington didn’t think the live performance was up to studio recording standards.  The engineer spliced together pieces of the live performance with the studio recording.

The original 1956 LP only featured 5 of the songs, and a 1999 remastered CD featured the entire 2 hour set.

ARTIST HISTORY:

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington DC on April 29, 1899.  Both of his parents were pianists and Edward himself started lessons at age 7.  He acquired his nickname “Duke” from his friends who noticed his stylish dress and manners gave him the air of a ‘young nobleman’.  Ellington wasn’t crazy about piano until he snuck into a local pool room at age 14 and would admire the ragtime pianists.  

Through his adolescence Ellington diligently studied ragtime pianists of the time and writing compositions by ear as he had not yet learned to read music.  With the help of DC pianist Oliver Perry, Duke was able to learn to read music as well as improve on his technique at the piano.  He started performing at small venues around town and his love for piano grew so much that he turned down scholarships to art schools.  Duke formed bands here and there, eventually moving to Harlem as part of the Harlem Renaissance.    He moved back to DC but travelled to New Jersey for some musical engagements, until 1926 when Duke signed a contract with an agent-publisher which allowed him to record extensively.  In 1927 bandleader King Oliver turned down a regular gig at the Cotton Club, which was then offered to Ellington and his band.  Because there was a weekly broadcast from the club, wealthy white listeners started pouring in to the speakeasy to drink illicit alcohol and watch the band.  Ellington’s popularity grew and he started writing music for film as well, starting with the 1929 picture Black and Tan

By the 1930s the Depression had started to ravage the US and the recording industry suffered as a result, but Ellington and his band were popular overseas, touring the UK, Scotland and Paris – his London debut saw him receive a standing ovation as soon as he walked on stage!  He was able to maintain popularity through the 1930s as jazz had started to gentrify and there was tighter competition within swing and jazz bands, but ever the innovator Ellington wanted to expand jazz beyond the 3 minute mark into larger and grander compositions, and his first attempt was with the album Black, Brown and Beige, a celebration of the Black experience in America from Post slavery to that present day in time.  By the end of WWII and into the early 1950s Duke’s popularity waned, but he continued to tour through Europe.  He lost some significant band members and his style of jazz was generally seen as outdated, until a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 revived his career and brought Duke back into public favour.  The concert made international headlines and led to a wildly successful album.  Through this success, Duke was able to work more on film scoring, including movies such as Anatomy of a Murder.  In the early 1960s he collaborated with other jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.  He continued to work, record and tour until he was felled by lung cancer at age 75 on May 24, 1974.  His funeral was attended by over 12,000 people.

FACTOID CORNER:

Ellington’s reputation continued to rise after his passing, culminating with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1999

When Ellington was working as a freelance sign painter , he would ask clients who were having signs painted or a dance or a party whether they had booked the entertainment, and if not he would offer to play for the occasion

Holly’s review:

I really enjoyed listening to this album this week. Our book explains how it was patched together between studio takes, live recordings, and canned applause, but it’s really high energy, and has a really nice flow from tune to tune. Duke Ellington is a jazz legend, responsible for much of the popularity of swing bands, and it’s definitely evident why in this recording. The band is great, the tunes are all excellent arrangements, and the overall package is great. I love the rhythm section, they’re so prominent at all times, but rarely featured, and the clarinet is so much more prominent than in today’s big band music. Also, some great screechy high trumpet moments!

         It opens with a solo clarinet line, which is kind of gutsy, but it works its way slowly to a high energy swing tune, and it just doesn’t stop after that point! Actually, this album and the performance just seems to get better the further in you go. It’s like a slow build.

         My favorite track has to be Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. That’s maybe unoriginal because it’s lots of peoples’ favorites, but the band is really tight, it’s upbeat, and this is the song that launched Paul Gonsalves’ career, with the 27 chorus long sax solo. I like that you can hear the band egging him on in the background. I really like that his solo is not some crazy altissimo or fast note adventure. It’s just a simple, thoughtful, melodic solo, but so much energy all the time! Apparently he collapsed on stage after.

         This was a great week for listening! What a fun album, which will be joining my collection.

Kelly’s review:

This album is really cool for a lot of reasons, but I love the fact that you can actually hear Duke Ellington winning over the audience thus beginning his career renaissance.  I also think it’s really cool that Duke was always evolving, tinkering, adjusting his compositions and arrangements with time.  We open the album with Duke being introduced, and then a warm, noodly clarinet starting us off with Festival Junction.  I really like this because, on a personal note, my best friend is a gifted clarinet player and good jazz clarinet always reminds me of him.  The song is upbeat and a great way for Duke to kick in the door.  Next is Blues to Be there, a slow blues shuffle, with again some good clarinet, followed by trombone and trumpet solos.  And lots of good dynamic range I noticed!  I also noticed how in tune the band is, and from what I can tell no glaring cacks from the horns or squawks from the winds.  Newport Up is a lively one, followed by another bluesy joint, Jeep’s Blues.

My favourite song on the album is the 15 minute long double feature stitched together by the saxophone solo by Paul Gonzalves called Diminuendo in Blue.  Obviously I don’t know nearly as much about the saxophone as my sister does, but from what I can tell, it’s a pretty awesome solo and I really like it.  It’s not crazy ornate.  You know when young instrumentalists just shred and stuff as many notes as they can in a solo to try and demonstrate virtuosity?  This isn’t it.  It’s one of those solos where he just plays the right notes at the right times and it feels right.  I love that you can hear the band encouraging him, starting a few bars into the solo, with a few claps punched in and perfectly placed accent chords from Duke.  As the solo goes on you can hear the audience start to get involved and vocal as well and more and more into it.  It’s like when you’re at a rock concert and you kind of wait for that one person to hoot and holler so then you feel comfortable doing it yourself.  Anyway, after the climatic end to the solo Duke plays a few bars to himself then a few from the band, and it all ends with a squealing screech trumpet and cheers and pandemonium from the audience.  

Although most of it was rerecorded in studio, whoever was the producer or engineer did a great job of recapturing a lot of that live performance energy.  I will be adding this album to my Discogs want list!

Average grade out of 10:

Holly: 8.5/10

Kelly: 8/10

Link to the album on YouTube:

Published by Kelly

What I like: Music, travel, coffee, beer, makeup and photography! My gear: Canon EOS 60D and 18-200mm lens. Where call home: Vancouver, BC, Canada Photography Experience: Very amateurish.

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