Duke Ellington's 'Plank Session' Offers Snapshots Of A Jazz Master At Work | KERA News

Duke Ellington's 'Plank Session' Offers Snapshots Of A Jazz Master At Work

Jul 10, 2015
Originally published on July 10, 2015 2:09 pm
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When bandleader Duke Ellington was on tour, he had a habit of booking studio time to record new music. It was one of the perks of keeping an expensive band together. In Cologne on July 9, 1970, Ellington recorded two tunes engineered by Conny Plank. A few years before, Plank became known for recording such rock musicians as Brian Eno. That brief recording session is now on CD. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a window into Ellington’s working method.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “ALERADO”)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Duke Ellington’s “Alerado,” 1970, with organist Wild Bill Davis, who was in and out of the band for a couple of years. The new Ellington release “The Conny Plank Session” is a footnote to Duke’s final period. Three takes each of just two songs, barely a half hour of music. One take of each has already appeared on an Ellington compilation. But the Plank recordings let us look over the master's shoulder as a couple of pieces take shape. “Alerado” was the kind of rhythmic trifle the band could learn in a minute, but Duke needed the right solo voices to complete it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “ALERADO”)

WHITEHEAD: Organist Davis wasn’t the band’s only recent higher. Duke’s star alto saxist Johnny Hodges had just died. His understudy-turn-replacement Norris Turney also played flute, a new color in Ellington's palette. Featuring organ and flute together made sense. Their timbres are compatible and strikingly new in context. Duke gave the final solo to another new hire – Canada’s Fred Stone, who played wildly busy flugelhorn. Throw in tenor sax swooping in for the close and Ellington got “Alerado” right the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “ALERADO”)

WHITEHEAD: Good as that is, Duke did two more takes, tinkering with the tempo and the solos, just to try it another way. But the band had already nailed it. The other composition he worked on that day was the drum-driven atmospheric “Afrique” – Africa in French. Rufus Jones mans the tom-tom. The jabbing pianist is Duke.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “AFRIQUE”)

WHITEHEAD: “Afrique” shows how Ellington maintained his identity while changing with the times. On one level, it's a throwback to his jungle music of the 1920s, though the tom-tom barrage itself is out of swing-era Gene Krupa. Those drums also tie in to the big beat of ‘60s rock music. Duke loved playing for dancers and wanted to get young people on the floor as well as their parents. The open form and fluid banter of the horns reflects ways jazz loosened up in the ‘60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “AFRIQUE”)

WHITEHEAD: The first and longest take of “Afrique” was a little slack in the pacing. By the tightened up take two, the band had it down - the call and response between organ and brass and the crosstalk between brass and saxophones. But Ellington wasn't done yet. The third version of “Afrique” is that second take with an overdub, a wild wordless vocal, apparently by Sweden’s Lena Junoff. She'd been tagging along with the band on tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “AFRIQUE”)

WHITEHEAD: That added vocal is another callback to 1927, when Duke was playing his new “Creole Love Call” on stage, heard Adelaide Hall singing along from the rings and put her on the recording days later. Ellington rarely threw a good idea away. Even so, by the time his orchestra recorded the definitive “Afrique” seven months later for the suite “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,” it had kept evolving. That version has no organ or vocal. The horn cries are more animalistic. And in the end, a conventional drum solo breaks out. The music kept moving, which makes these snapshots of works-in-progress all the more valuable.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, “AFRIQUE”)

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of “Why Jazz?” He reviewed Duke Ellington and his Orchestra “The Conny Plank Sessions.” On Monday’s show, Ta-Nehisi Coates. His new book, addressed to his teenage son, is about what it's like to be an African-American in the U.S. We’ll talk with Coates about growing up in West Baltimore, living in fear of both the police and the streets, and about racism, forgiveness and how he is raising his son differently from how his father raised him. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.