At WSJ on the Duke Ellington/Conny Plank Sessions

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‘Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: The Conny Plank Session’ Review

A new album with four previously unreleased tracks shows that Ellington remained eclectic in his musical endeavors late into his career.

Duke Ellington in 1971. ENLARGE
Duke Ellington in 1971. Photo: Getty Images

During the final 12 years of his life, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was notably eclectic in his musical endeavors, but a new recording “Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: The Conny Plank Session” (Grönland, July 10 release) shows the maestro working an even broader range of musical territory.

The recording feature six tracks, four previously unreleased, from a 1970 session in Cologne featuring the Ellington Orchestra with Plank at the helm. Plank (1940-1987) was an up-and-coming producer at that time, but his work with a wide variety of performers including Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Devo, Killing Joke, Neu!, A Flock of Seagulls and Eurythmics made him a pioneer of both synthesizer-based rock as well as ambient music. Yet, he too was eclectic in his musical pursuits. In 1969, he produced “The Living Music” (Atavistic), by the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and “Nipples” (Calig) by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann; they are seminal recordings in the European free jazz canon.

Connie Plank in his studio in 1982. ENLARGE
Connie Plank in his studio in 1982. Photo: David Corio/Getty Images

The tapes were discovered by representatives of the label who were perusing the Plank estate. Stories vary about how the session came about and even the date of the recording. Ellingtonia, the online discography of Duke’s work, cites July 9, 1970, but the tapes say April 27 of that year. One version of the story is that the Ellington band was looking for a place to rehearse and Plank volunteered his studio in exchange for recording the proceedings. The other version is that Ellington hired Plank to make the recordings. Either way, great music was made by these men with contrasting specialties.

The recording features only two tracks but unlike vintage jazz reissues where alternate takes offer only subtle tweaks on the original, these pieces show Ellington making substantial revisions to each performance. The 29 minute program begins with three takes of “Alerado,” a piece by Wild Bill Davis. The first rendition is a smooth up-tempo number highlighted by vibrant solos by a flutist and trumpeter (both uncredited) and the composer. The second take is slower, almost a walking tempo, and the solos are pithier. The third version of the tune is slower still, with harder rhythmic accents and a different mood; the piece is more somber and it features an uncredited saxophone solo and a longer more complex solo by the composer.

“Afrique,” the other piece, is indicative of Ellington’s restless creativity. The piece begins with an array of horns accenting a percolating rhythm by an uncredited drummer. With impressive solo work by Davis and peppery work by the horns, the piece sounds like the Ellington classic “Daybreak Express” given a modernist approach. The second take features a duet between a reserved, probing tenor saxophonist and Ellington, who takes an arch, minimalist approach to the song. The third rendition features vocalese, big organ swells from Davis, and an abstract tenor saxophone solo. According to Ellingtonia, saxophonists Paul Gonsalves and Harold Ashby are on the date, but the solos aren’t credited. There seems to be little connection between these recordings and the synth pop that Plank produced in the ’80s, but in the live, you-are-in-the-studio sound of these tracks with Duke it is easy to see the influence that these sessions had on Plank’s work with Mr. Eno.

The brevity of this album notwithstanding, it makes a solid argument for reevaluating the late phase of Ellington’s work. On his live recordings of this period, he is the stereotypical aging master cranking out the hits, but his studio work tells a substantially different story. These six tracks are consistent with the work of a man who invited two modern jazz masters, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, to record in a trio that released “Money Jungle” (United Artists) in 1962. He also probed the connections between jazz and American vernacular music in his “New Orleans Suite” (Atlantic, 1970), and his three Sacred Concerts from 1965, 1968 and 1973. In addition, recordings like “The Far East Suite” (Bluebird, 1967) and “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” (Fantasy, 1971) reveal Ellington’s pioneering efforts to blend jazz and international sounds. Finally, the latter recording also displays an Ellingtonian take on rock.

During the final years of his life, jazz was quickly changing, but a close look at Ellington’s studio work shows that he was staying ahead of the times.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at thejoyofcheese.blogspot.com. In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and www.theroot.com. I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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