Music that is unique because it concentrates on the ensemble.
Duke Ellington (piano); Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Shorty Baker, Ray Nance (trumpets); Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson, John Sanders (trombones); Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney (reeds); Jimmy Woode (bass); Jimmy Johnson (drums)
Recorded February and April 1959
Sunset and the Mocking Bird / Lightning Bugs and Frogs / Le Sucrier Velours / Northern Lights / The Single Petal of A rose / Apes and PeacocksClark Terry Cat Anderson Shorty Baker Ray Nance (trumpets)
Ellington was a complex man and his beliefs were sometimes difficult to understand even for his admirers. Ellington used language to obscure, to hide behind. His political views were never overt. The sacred concerts, towards the end of his life, showed his religious beliefs. The admiration of monarchy was real.
The Ellington orchestra in 1958 was remarkable. The trumpets had four musicians each with their own idiosyncratic tones; the cool contained Shorty Baker, the fiery Cat Anderson, the quick boppish tones from Clark Terry and the rich brassiness of Ray Nance. The trombones too had great differences from the clipped unadorned playing of Britt Woodman and the muted wildness from Quentin Jackson. The saxophone section had by that time settled into perfection with the soaring bluesiness from Hodges, the wayward, fractured creativity from Gonsalves, the academic Hamilton, the traditional Procope and the rich earthy baritone of Carney. Such variety should not work but it did.
After a gap from 1933 to 1958 Ellington toured the UK. Protracted negotiations led the Ellington band to arrive in Leeds in 1958 where Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth. When she asked how long it was since Ellington had been in England, Ellington replied ‘1933, Your Majesty, years before you were born.’ The occasion of the Leeds festival and the meeting with the Queen made an impression on Ellington and he returned to New York to write a suite to express his gratitude. The suite was recorded, Ellington paid for the session, a single copy was pressed and sent to Buckingham Palace. All this was done in secret without fanfare or press releases, a purely personal gift. Ellington insisted that the suite would not be issued in his lifetime. It was done for the pleasure of giving it to the Queen. Norman Granz issued the recording, together with other suites in 1976, two years after Ellington’s death. It was one of the first recordings to be placed in ‘The stockpile’: the group of recordings that have been issued steadily since Ellington’s death.
It is a recording with an interesting story but with music that is unique because it concentrates on the ensemble. The playing of the orchestra is remarkable. The writing for this suite from both Ellington and Strayhorn has a richness and complexity that is unique. No one in jazz has written as well for the jazz orchestra. The personnel of the orchestra at the time were particularly rich and Ellington could call on so many unique sounds. The saxophone section was stable and the tones that Ellington could call on had great beauty.
The first movement ‘Sunset and the Mocking Bird’ is inspired by a bird call they heard as Ellington and Harry Carney drove across Florida. The main theme is played by Ellington over the saxophone section. Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet has a key role but Johnny Hodges slides gracefully into the main theme. The beauty of the Ellington saxophone section and the cushioning of the trombones is evident throughout.
‘Lightning Bugs and Frogs’ was inspired by the sight and sound of a huge arena with millions of lightning bugs dancing in the air. In a pit down below was the croaking of frogs. Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet sets the atmosphere and the frogs are impersonated by Harry Carney on bass clarinet. A chord is built up in steps of low trombone, bass clarinet, trumpet and tenor sax and the resulting outline is the main substance of the movement. Quentin Jackson, Jimmy Hamilton and Jimmy Woody have important ensemble parts. It is music with unusual shades and colours. The impressionistic use of the musicians is impressive.
‘Le Sucrier Velours’ is the name for a bird whose song is as sweet as sugar and who feels very soft. The saxophone section plays with Hodges leading over unusual harmonies. The melodic shape of this movement is long, winding and sensuous.
Duke Ellington and Harry Carney saw the ‘Northern Lights’ in Canada and they described the experience to Billy Strayhorn. This is Strayhorn’s only contribution to the suite. The strong emphatic opening leads to the saxophone section which is divided into groups with alto and tenor, two clarinets and baritone. When the actual melody is stated there is a strong rhythmic awareness by Paul Gonsalves. The piece is full of rich sustained orchestral colours contrasted with the astringent voicings of the divided reeds. Billy Strayhorn enhances the richness of the orchestra sound by giving the lead voice of the trumpet section to Shorty Baker. The massive sound of the opening is repeated as Gonsalves’ tenor slides out of the chords in the closing section.
‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ is just Ellington and Jimmy Woode. It is one of the few pieces from the suite that Ellington sometimes played in public and he always dedicated it to Queen Elizabeth. Rubato playing from Woode gently underpins the pianist. During the course of his life Ellington developed a piano style that could move from the harsh strongly percussive to the tender melodic and searing. Ellington was, at his core, a romantic.
The final movement ‘Apes and Peacocks’ is inspired by the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba and all the gifts that she brought to King Solomon including apes and peacocks. The creation for the orchestra is a piece of highly spiced three clarinets. The crucial solo part for the low saxophone is given to Gonsalves as the procession passes with the relentless drumming from Jimmy Johnson. The Ellington band develops a musical picture of vivid varied colours.
Finally, the focus of The Queen’s Suite is on Ellington’s writing, capturing one aspect of this remarkable composer.