Tag Archives: duke ellington

A Fly on the Studio Wall

7 Dec

One of the great things about being in my job is having the opportunity to interview world-class musicians, or introduce them on stage at concerts. Of course the chance to hear them play live right in front of me, or learn interesting things about them during an interview is amazing, but for me the most entertaining part is the discussions that happen before the tape is rolling or before the show begins.

This is the time where, even if it is only a sentence or two, I feel you can really get the coolest story of the event.

I have yet to run into sax man Joshua Redman in a bad mood backstage. He remembers names, asks about other people at the radio station by name and tells me to say hello to them for him.

While walking on stage to introduce Wynton Marsalis, one of his band members told me to wait a second because he wanted to know where the best place to eat after the show was.

The late Michael Brecker made it clear to me multiple times in one interview, after complimenting his recordings, that if I really wanted to enjoy his music, “you need to hear that **** live.”

And the great Clark Terry, after a wonderful interview and performance, was kind enough to join some of the staff and listeners for a sandwich. God bless him, as he fell asleep while I was in the middle of a sentence. In his defense, most people start falling asleep when I talk too much.

Thinking about this made me start wondering about all of the great conversations and interactions that took place “off-mic” in recording sessions that we never got to hear.

For example, to be a fly on the wall, Christmas Eve, 1954. Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are in a recording session that reportedly almost came to blows because Miles didn’t want Monk playing during his solos. Give their recording of The Man I Love a listen, and you can almost hear the animosity. I would have loved to hear that conversation take place.

Or perhaps some studio sessions with slightly less violent interactions. How about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (or any recording session with either of those two guys)? I can only imagine the conversations that took place when the tape wasn’t rolling.

Certainly there are many sessions that would have been great to be a fly on the wall for, and no doubt that with all of the ones that are racing through my mind right now, I am probably forgetting some that would have been the best.

I invite you to share who you would have liked to overhear in the studio when the microphones were off.

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Up in the Cotton Club

8 Oct

Did anyone ever suspect that someone would mix Beyonce with Duke Ellington and his band? I can safely say I didn’t see this one coming. My music director called me into his office to give this a listen, and I truly couldn’t believe it. I must have heard Single Ladies by Beyonce a million times, but even though she is singing the lyrics, I didn’t even recognize it because of the way it was mixed with Duke.

Anyway, you’ve got to give this a listen – just for fun.

Rumors of Jazz Movies

31 May

It seems like it has been a couple years since I heard whispers of two jazz related films that were in pre-production. I hadn’t heard anything about either of these projects in a while, and decided to do some digging.

The first film I originally heard about from Abe Beeson on Evening Jazz a couple years ago. He had mentioned that Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Lucky Number Slevin) would play Chet Baker in a film called The Prince of Cool.

The concept of this film surfaced during the same time that the life of musicians Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were being put on the silver screen, becoming huge cinematic hits.

The problem, as it turns appears, is that the reasons that producers wanted to create a Chet Baker biopic and the reasons Josh Hartnett wanted to create a Chet Baker biopic were completely different. While producers wanted to rush a project in order to capitalize on the Ray and Walk the Line bandwagon, Josh Hartnett claims that he wanted to dedicate a significant amount of time and thought to the project, making it unique and original. Because Hartnett (apparently a huge jazz fan), and the producers could not come to agreement on their differences, Hartnett withdrew from the project and that is that.

The second film of note accumulated press in 2006 upon the announcement of it, but there has been little word of it since. The film is called The Jazz Ambassadors, and is set to star Morgan Freeman as Duke Ellington.

This is not so much of a biography of Duke, as it is a look at what role members of Duke’s entourage might have had in the 1963 coup let by the CIA in Iraq.

That’s right. It is suggested that the CIA planted spies within Duke’s band as they toured the Middle East. While your first reaction might be “yeah right”, U.S. State Department official Tom Simons, who toured with Duke’s band in the Middle East, is working on the project.

Maybe “working on the project” is a loose term to use, as I struggled to find much work being done on the project announced three years ago at all. Freeman (who I think would make an excellent Ellington) is involved on a variety of other projects currently, as is the designated director of the film, and the only suggested release date I came up with is 2011, posted on IMDB.com.


Remembering Duke Ellington on his 110th Birthday with Clark Terry

29 Apr

dukeWhen your name is Duke Ellington, it doesn’t really matter what anniversary of your birth it might be, or how long you’ve been dead, there always seems to be a stream of celebrations and remembrances every April 29th. On this, the 110th anniversary of Duke Ellington, one of the greatest musicians and composers in history, I chose to remember Duke in a different way.

Ellington died five years before I was born, so for me to “remember” him might be a little out of place. Instead, I invite you to click the link below and listen to a portion of my 2007 interview with legendary trumpeter Clark Terry.

Terry spent years touring and recording with Duke, and in the audio Terry remembers Duke, talks about his attitude towards compositions that just didn’t quite work, and compares Ellington to Count Basie.

To hear this audio blog, click here. Enjoy!

Duke Ellington: the 1952 Seattle Concert Celebrates an Anniversary

25 Mar

ellington-seattleI’m guessing that I’m not the only one who wasn’t aware that Duke Ellington’s The 1952 Seattle Concert was his first legitimate live performance release (with the exception of a few V-Discs). To be honest, I didn’t even know there was a Ellington Seattle concert recording until I came across it, and and today marks the 57th Anniversary of this concert.

One of the interesting things about this recording (aside from the fact that this is an anniversary of it and that it took place in my backyard), is that it showcases some new members at a time after Duke’s top star, Johnny Hodges, and two others, had departed. Drummer Louis Bellson was perhaps the most notable addition, along with valve trombonist Juan Tizol, slide trombonist Britt Woodman, saxophonist Willie Smith, and trumpeter Willie Cook.

The new members contributed not only with their instruments to this concert, but with their compositions as well. The band performed Skin Deep (the opening number) and The Hawk Talks by new drummer Bellson, as well as contributions by Tizol including Caravan and Perdido.

Perdido became a showcase tune for trumpet section leader Clark Terry. I interviewed Terry a couple of years ago, and while he might not be able to play like he did 57 years ago (triple-tounging notes as only he could), he maintains the same personality in his playing that he did when playing with Duke. Clark Terry shines on this recording, and did with the band until he left in 1959.

Other highlights of the release include multiple Ellington standards including It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing, In a Sentimental Mood, Mood Indigo, as well as a 15 minute version of Ellington’s Harlem Suite.

This is a nice item to add to a jazz collection, again as it highlights the beginning of a series of great live recordings released by Ellington. While Duke’s Newport live recording from 1956 still might be his live performance highlight, this album is highly recommended.

Jazz Modernized

8 Mar

When you have an art form that has existed for well over one hundred years, with roots to that art form going back even farther than that, you undoubtedly end up placing many different interpretations of that art form all under the same umbrella. There may be no better example of that than jazz. Because of the freedom and progression of jazz, a musician could conceivably call anything jazz if they find some ground to justify it on.

Jazz can be broken down by eras, styles, and about a dozen or so other fields. Debates and arguments happen over which era or style is the best, or what really made jazz what it is. And it seems that as time goes on, many artists try to offer their own performance of a traditional tune with as much respect to the original as possible, write new music, or completely transform old recordings into something completely different, with the vaguest hint of the original.

It is the latter that has my attention today. There are some musicians who are doing a wonderful job creating new modern works, or offering new looks at older compositions. Trumpeter Russell Gunn might be a perfect example of that. His original recordings, and his covers of older recordings both offer the same thing: personality. And not just personality in general, they offer his personality. You can hear one of his recordings, and whether its an original or not, it always has a little attitude and a little bite. It becomes very Russell Gunn.

Some vocalists have taken to putting lyrics to old instrumental tunes, and some have made it work. It took guts for Norah Jones to put lyrics to the Duke Ellington tune Melancholia, but she did, called it Don’t Miss You At All, and the end result was wonderful. On the flip side, you won’t see me banging down any doors to get to the Manhattan Transfer vocal interpretation of the Weather Report hit Birdland.

One of the things that stirred these thoughts more vividly recently was hearing more and more songs “remixed”, and hearing them everywhere. Not so much the radio, but in department stores and elevators. These “recordings” are classic songs chopped up by a DJ, who with the help of a couple turntables (used for scratching, not playing) and a $99 music software program turn it into something you could easily hear at a techno music club. The only resemblance the final product bears to the original is one or two lines that Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone sang that didn’t hit the DJ’s cutting room floor. The rest is purely electronically produced, almost always with a trance-like robotic drum beat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve spent hours in dance clubs that featured music produced entirely with electronics. And as a modern day employee of a radio station, there is no more reel-to-reel editing, thank goodness, as everything is done quicker and easier on computers.

But when do we hit the point where we realize, in some ways, that the wonderful modern technology we have in front of us might be a tool that robs us of personality? Is it bad that someone tries to recreate Nobody’s Fault But Mine with one or two lines from the original, plus a recycled drum beat and a heavy bass line, all at five times the original tempo? The majority of the lyrics and anything resembling a solo are completely gone. Maybe it isn’t bad, but it can be unnerving at the very least when someone hears it and assumes it to be the original.

I’m not some old stick in the mud that has anything against modern technology. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But to me, there comes a point where you simply rob music of its originality and personality. And it was that personality that got us all interested in the first place. One might have seen Coltrane in concert and spoke of his 45 minute solo, or heard a recording by Ella Fitzgerald and mentioned how “you could even hear the piano bench Ellis Larkins creak as he rocked in the background, while she sang that heartbreaking tune”.

Give me personality any day, especially when it comes to music…especially when it comes to jazz. Give me something interesting and creative to listen to, and leave the computer and the canned drum beat at home.

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