A benevolent patriarch, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington allowed this assemblage of virtuosos a maximum of creative attitude in performance and often deferred to their ideas as his pieces took form in rehearsals. He asserted only minimal discipline on off-stage behavior, outlining a band member's area of responsibility without undue talk, insisting only that their music take precedence. The men responded to him that it always did and it always would.
A Band United
Ellington got the best from his men, not only because of the strong emotional link they shared but because it had always been his habit to tailor his works to the capacities of his colleagues. By doing this over the years, he managed to deeply mine the talents of this group of individuals and in the process gave voice to his feelings and ideas as he wanted to hear them. He wove a singular musical fabric with the men he played with. And when a key player left the orchestra or passed on there was a discernible gap, difficult to fill.
Perhaps one of the most compelling displays of the band’s strength and musical capacity is Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert, a live album taped during the winter of 1969 that comprised the best of two recitals, one in Manchester and the other in Bristol. This two-record set supplies telling evidence of Ellington's undiminished vitality and inventiveness as a leader and pianist. It also documents the eternal relevance of his compositions and of the band's capacity to renew itself, even while performing evergreen material from the Ellington repertory. One has only to listen to the opening offering, "Rockin' in Rhythm", written by Ellington and Harry Carney in 1931 as background for dancer Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, to realize how well the process worked. The composition, like all Ellingtonia, had and has continued to evolve over time, taking on new meaning while retaining its original rhythmical resilience and "jungle" band quality.
Supporting the Lead Man
Much of this success is owed to the crucial Ellington sound sources, the career men like Carney, Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Paul Gonsalves and Cat Anderson, who instrumentally kept faith and progressively enhanced the rapport between themselves and their leader. These men and Ellington became indivisible. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges deserves special praise. He died soon after this album was made, but perhaps more so than any of the others, Hodges personified the life and times and soul of the Ellington orchestra. The short, seemingly imperturbable musician traveled with his tall friend and employer for over 40 years and provided a rare presence, center of mellifluous sound and sophisticated sensuality and a multiplicity of nuance for Ellington to draw on for his tone paintings. No matter what the occasion, Hodges looked inside himself and produced flavorful, sometimes tart, always singular performances. He directly related to the music while distilling his own thoughts and feelings. His sound and manner were central to the Ellington effect.
Hodges reminds us here, on "Black Butterfly,” of the well of emotion and deep-set lyricism he could bring to blue-mood material.
Moving gracefully through this mid-1930s Ellington offering–a matter of beguiling textures–the alto man sings, cries and says no more than necessary. He makes musical images almost visual. To realize the extent of his reach one only has to listen to the two items that follow “Butterfly” on the album: Mercer Ellington's blues, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Laying on Mellow," a 32-bar informal opus by the elder Ellington. Hodges turns on the inner light and comments incisively, revealing the limber, blues-infused aspects of his playing style.
Among several other old favorites there's a resounding version of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A-Train", on which "our piano player” sets things in motion (first in 3/4 and then in 4/4) before the band explodes and Cootie Williams recounts, in his own way, the original Rex Stewart and Ray Nance trumpet solos. Williams, poised but burning, snaps off notes with great flair on “Tootie for Cootie,” which Ellington wrote for him when he returned to the band a few years prior. Swedish trumpeter Rolf Ericson updated the 1942 track "Perdido" with a string of interesting choruses, bringing a more modern, understated favor than the original to this venerable jam-session reliable. Organist Wild Bill Davis, who was relatively new to the band, was featured on “Azure” and “Satin Doll.” The possibilities for voicing this instrument with the orchestra were interesting, but Davis is a bit too flamboyant and no more than adequate as an improvisor.
Trumpeter for Life
Cat Anderson, who was another lifer in the trumpet section, does his feature, "El Gato" both excitingly and well and illustrates his command of the horn, particularly its upper reaches. Two of the newer additions to the band, reed virtuoso Norris Turney–he also doubles trombone–and tenorist Harold Ashby are heard to advantage on "In Triplicate;” they do battle with tenor saxophone star Paul Gonsalves. Turney gets the best of it.
A lengthy medley of Ellington's great song hits, featuring the maestro at the piano and various players in solo roles, take up most of the final side of the album. Of course, this drew an excellent response from the British audience. But one wonders why Ellington insisted on programming this medley so frequently. Presumably it was good show business. Perhaps the new music, notably “4:30 Blues”–a wonderful atmospheric piece–was made possible by the acceptance of the old.
Most importantly, the album was evidence that Ellington, who was 71 at the time, remained as young and as creative as he had always been; for this we must be grateful.