Thursday, December 30, 1999
Just got Teldec''s new CD, Tribute to Ellington, with Daniel Barenboim on piano, Don Byron on clarinet, vocalist Dianne Reeves and conductor/ arranger Cliff Colnot (plus a multitude of some 10 jazz artists and program notes by Ahmet Ertegun.) Great idea, dumb idea.
Great because of Ellington''s astounding imprint on American music. Dumb because the musicians didn''t invest enough time in getting it right. We wish it were otherwise, that Jean-Yves Thibaudet really "got" Bill Evans in his Decca release, that Fred Hersch truly distilled Thelonius Monk in his Nonesuch recording.
(Luckily, Marcus Roberts, the blind artist with the long fingers, brilliantly improvised Gershwin''s Rhapsody in Blue last week on PBS with a style mastery that would have delighted Gershwin himself.)
But remaking Ellington, in this his centenary year, has proved mostly a fiasco. The otherwise gifted Barenboim belongs in the same league as Thibaudet and Hersch. By the subtlest of inflections, he misses the mark.
Fortunately, the Ellington legacy speaks for itself, through dozens of recordings and, perhaps most important, the Smithsonian Institution''s indispensable Collection of Classic Jazz. Here, one discovers the genius of Duke Ellington, described in the program notes as "the jazz composer/orchestra leader par excellence." In a century where music is dominated by individual geniuses, Ellington stands up easily with Stravinsky, Ravel and Milhaud, to name but a few.
What''s important to understand, however, is that Ellington is at his best as a miniaturist. His more ambitious efforts, like Three Black Kings and Black, Brown and Beige Suite don''t sustain the intensity of such amazing pictures as Ko-Ko, Concerto for Cootie, In a Mellotone and Harlem Air Shaft. (The latter had been part of the Smithsonian collection of LPs, but was inexplicably deleted from the reissued edition on CDs.) These pieces find Ellington at the top of his form, as composer, arranger and master of his idiom. Because they specifically exploit the individual talents of his band members, these short works fall more into the category of concerti grossi, or at least concertante, than was typical of other big bands of the ''30s and ''40s.
Ironically, they are overshadowed by such familiar Ellington tunes as "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," "Caravan," "Don''t Get Around Much Any More," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Mood Indigo," and the great signature, Billy Strayhorn''s "Take the A Train."
The history of music, like the history of art, has always elevated its share of master miniaturists. With a few major exceptions, Ravel worked most of his miracles in miniature. So did Debussy and Chopin in their piano music. What about Gottschalk, Joplin and, in our own time, Astor Piazzolla? Albeniz and Granados, Respighi, Stravinsky and Bartok left their large shares of tiny masterpieces. And all Baroque composers worked up large forms from small ones.
Music is distinctively enriched by the Washington DC native, who was born April 29, 1899. Many have called Ellington America''s greatest composer. If you begin with jazz as America''s "classical music," the claim carries a great deal of validity. No composer in the improvisational language of jazz--by strict definition an oxymoron--speaks with more mastery and originality.