Ray Nance, Clark Terry,William “Cat” Anderson, John Willie Cook – trumpets; Quentin Jackson, John Sanders, Britt Woodman – trombones; Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope saxophones and clarinets; Duke Ellington – piano, arrangements; James Woode – bass Sam Woodyard – drums) Jimmy Grissom (vocals)
George Wein who organised the Newport Festival is quoted in the sleeve notes as saying: ‘This was the greatest performance of Ellington’s career. It stood for everything that jazz had been and could be.’
Not true, George. It was all part of the hype that surrounds this concert. It was not the greatest performance but it was an important occasion for Ellington. The band had suffered the decline that all bands had suffered and they approached the Festival after playing in some very down market venues. It was important that their appearance at this prestigious occasion should be a success. Ellington together with Billy Strayhorn had written a suite; ‘The Festival Suite’ in three parts. However, it was not the suite that was going to draw the attention but the two pieces resurrected from the 1930s, ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’. There was nothing nostalgic about what occurred. The interval between the two pieces was filled by twenty seven choruses from the tenor saxophone of Paul Gonsalves. Gonsalves inspired by both his colleagues in the band and, in spite of the late hour, the audience who roared their approval until the atmosphere was close to frenzy.
The Ellington band received rave reviews. Ellington, tongue firmly in cheek, always claimed that he was born at Newport in 1956. It was realised that a record of the performance would sell well. The practice at the time was to record most of the music played at a Festival in a studio to ensure better balance and fewer clinkers. Applause would be dubbed in. On this album you get the live performance and the studio version. You also get some additional studio material and some ‘bonus’ tracks from Basin St East from the same year.
The real musical highlight is the ‘Festival Suite’. The whole suite is loosely arranged leaving plenty of space for the band’s soloists. The first movement opens at medium tempo with a melody played by clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton. Ellington accompanies him with spare blues chords. Then the orchestra starts an insistent rhythm . A procession of soloists: trumpeters Willie Cook and Cat Anderson, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, trombonist Britt Woodman and Quentin Jackson, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney), and Russell Procope on alto complete the piece.. ‘Blues To Be There’ has three sections. Ellington opens the piece with gentle rhythms. The riffs are simple. Russell Procope this time plays clarinet. Ray Nance is followed by Clark Terry, Paul Gonsalves and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet who are backed very firmly by the propulsive drumming of Sam Woodyard.’Newport Up’ is very up tempo with solos from Hamilton, Terry and Gonsalves. Strangely Johnny Hodges was not featured at all in the suite.
Gonsalves’ solo on ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’ was not re-recorded in the studio, the original was used. Some years after the event and after the first LPs were issued it was realised that although Gonsalves had played away from the Columbia mikes he had infact played into the Voice of America mikes. That feed has been used in subsequent issues. The notoriety of this solo meant that Gonsalves was compelled to play something similar on many subsequent occasions. Sadly, Gonsalves was better than that. His wistful, emotional tone, his serpentine lines were unique and his ballad playing was superb. ‘Diminuendo’ is something only that you might listen to on occasions and some have argued that Coltrane’s development of long solos owed much to Gonsalves’ example.
The glory of the band is the way that Ellington encouraged uniqueness in his soloists and the way that he blended them in his compositions. You can hear it all here. Trombonist Quentin Jackson sounds nothing like Britt Woodman. Trumpeter Ray Nance sounds nothing like Clark Terry, The band sounds like no other.
If you don’t have this concert, this is a good way to acquire one of the key moments in jazz.