GREAT TIMES!: DUKE ELLINGTON and BILLY STRAYHON piano duets
OSCAR PETTIFORD HIS CELLO AND QUARTET
Duke Ellington (p) Billy Strayhorn (celeste -1) Oscar Pettiford (b) Lloyd Trotman (b) Jo Jones (drs)
NYC; September 13, 1950
M4004 Untitled Blues Up-To-Date UTD 2006
M4005 Perdido (2:53) Mercer 1003 RM(S9)-475
M4006 Take the "A" Train (1) (2:17) - -
M4007 Oscalypso (1) (2:41) - -
M4008 Blues for Blanton (2:37) - -
M4009 Twelve O’Clock Rock (unissued)
DUKE ELLINGTON AND BILLY STRAYHORN
Duke Ellington (p) Billy Strayhorn (p) Wendell Marshall (b)
NYC; October 3, 1950
M5710 Cottontail (2’51”) Mercer 1001 RM (S9)475
M5711 C Jam Blues (2’55”) - -
M5712 Flamingo (2’56”) - -
M5713 Bang-Up Blues (3’04”) - -
DUKE ELLINGTON AND BILLY STRAYHORN
Duke Ellington (p) Billy Strayhorn (p) Joe Shulman (b)
NYC; November , 1950
M2479 Tonk (2’55”) Mercer 1001 RM(S9)475
M2480 Johnny Comes Lately (2’57”) - -
M2481 In A Blue Summer Garden (4’02”) - -
M2482 Great Times (2’52”) - -
As musical history this album is priceless. It presents Duke Ellington and his long-time associate composer, arranger, confidant and friend Billy Strayhorn in a series of piano duets. It is the only place (with the exception of one track recorded for RCA Victor) where these two musical milestone-makers can be found in piano interplay.
This material was originally recorded late in 1950 by Duke’s son Mercer Ellington and jazz critic Leonard Feather, and the first eight selections were issued in limited quality as a 10-inch Mercer album in the early ‘50s. The embryonic Mercer label quickly passed out of existence (whereupon the few existing copies of the LP became much sought-after collectors items, some being sold through the grapevine for $25 and more). Thus, this released on Riverside is actually the first full-scale presentation of an album that will surely take its place in the archives of jazz as a memorable “only one of its kind” creation.
The problems involved in assembling and producing this album were monumental. The younger Ellington notes that when Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews displayed interest in putting such a package together, it brought Mercer face to face with a prodigious re-creation project. Most of the original tapes from the Mercer label’s several recording sessions had been destroyed some years ago in a fire at the Ampex Recording Studios, where they were stored.
“We had a few Metal parts (the metal ‘mother’ disks from which finished records are produced,)” Mercer explained, “but mostly we had to go to Ellington collector for copies of the original 10-inch LP. The next problem was to find discs with little or no surface noise.” They succeeded more than reasonably well, and few listeners are apt to complain about finding a few grains of grift in this historically rare brew.
The idea for duo recording grew, says Leonard Feather, out of Tonk. This tune, the only one on the LP that might even loosely be termed “arranged,” was often performed at parties by Duke and Billy. The two composer-pianists sat down together and played four hands on one keyboard when two pianos were not available,, and the bright, sparkling sound of their music never failed to break up the assembled guests. (Feather took his cue from this party performance to record Tonk for Victor). But, according to both Mercer and Leonard, the other duo-piano tracks here were done in off-the-cuff fashion. The two men just sat down in the RCA Victor 24th Street studios and played spontaneously. But it was of course, the kind of “casual” performance that is only possible after years and years of the closest association and mutual respect and affection. Most of the tracks are familiar Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations. Cottontail, C-Jam Blues, Perdido, Take the “A” Train, Great Times, Johnny Come Lately and Blues for Blanton are standards to jazz-and-Ellington devotees. What the two composer-pianists with these melodies, however, will be a revelation to the majority of listeners.
On first hearing, the album sounds like dazzling montage played by one man with four hands. So close are the ties between these two men that the music sounds and feels as though it were being produced by one mind and one heart. So closely do the lines inter-twine that it is almost impossible for even a listener familiar with the styles of both artists to separate who is playing what. Most often it is the brilliant interplay of the two men fitting and weaving together (rather than lead and accompaniment) that astounds and excites the listener.
The entire performance is so unified that Billy Strayhorn confessed, in an interviewed with veteran jazz writer Bill Coss: “I really have to sit down at a keyboard and play it out myself to know for sure who is playing.”
This becomes ore understandable when Billy explains his relationship with Duke. He told Coss that “What it comes down to is that, although we feel very differently about life, we really understand what each one of us wants in a composition. As a consequence, Duke can call me and say ‘I’ve got these notes here and I haven’t got the time.’ I wright it out from there.” Strayhorn not only knows exactly what Duke Ellington wants in a composition, but also what Duke’s band expects and needs. As a result, he says, “Although my style of playing away from Duke and the band is quite different, when I play with the band I play like its leader. I know what Duke would do in a particular section of a composition, and I know the band expects it to happen.”
This complete fitting of the Strayhorn style with that of Ellington is really the key to these recordings. A guide to who’s playing when can only be given in general terms. In most cases Duke makes the opening melodic statements. The light, airy phrases, touched with suggestions of Tatum and Teddy Wilson (and the French classical impressionists as well – as on C Jam) seem most often to be Strayhorn’s.
The final four tracks here feature the late Oscar Pettiford. Originally included in another Mercer album, they marked the great bassist’s recorded debut on cello, and were probably the first jazz cello performances ever recorded. O. P. had experimented with the instrument during his tour of duty with the Woody Herman band in 1949, when a slow-healing broken arm hampered his bass style. Another unique feature of these particular tracks is the addition of Strayhorn on celeste. The sound of cello and celeste gives a bright, bubbling quality of cello and celeste gives a bright, bubbling quality to the numbers on which they are included.
Ellington fans across the country and the world will find this fascinating set. It deepens and broadens the historical understanding of Duke’s work and greatly increases an already-monumental musical legacy.
JACK MEHER, Billboard
NOTE: all 12 titles of RM(S9)-475 also on OJC-108
RM(S9)-475 “Great Times!:Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn Piano Duets”; re-mastered by Madison Sound Studios, 1964
Produced by Riverside Records. Notes by Jack Maher (Billboard) and cover by Ken Deardoff.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street, New York 36, N. Y.