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Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder – Columbia/Pure Pleasure Records (audiophile LP)

Legendary American composer jazzed up Shakespeare.

Published on February 10, 2011

Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder – Columbia/Pure Pleasure Records (audiophile LP)

Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder – Columbia/Pure Pleasure Records 180 gram audiophile vinyl  (mono) CL 1032 *****:

(Duke Ellington – piano; “Cat” Anderson – trumpet; Ray Nance – trumpet; Clark Terry – trumpet; Willie Cook – trumpet; John Sanders – trombone; Britt Woodman – trombone; Quentin Jackson – trombone; Johnny Hodges – saxophone; Harry Carney – saxophone; Russell Procope – saxophone; Jimmy Hamilton – saxophone; Paul Gonsalves – saxophone; Sam Woodyard – drums; Jimmy Wood – bass.)

Very few artists impact culture in a significant way. In the case of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, he globalized a music genre. Jazz or “American Music”, as Ellington referred to it, had a colloquial application. Louis Armstrong updated the blues, while big bands synthesized the music into dance format. Ellington brought sophistication to the compositional elements, as evidenced by pieces like “Caravan”, “Mood Indigo”, “Solitude” and “Sentimental Lady”. More importantly, he arranged music to feature individual talents of the band members. The orchestral complexity of his repertoire was innovative and unique. He encouraged bandmates to compose, and scored hits with “Perdido” (by Juan Tizol) and “Take The A Train” (Billy Strayhorn).

Another facet of his talent was the capacity to interpret music as it related to social context and other mediums. His legendary movie score for Anatomy Of A Murder brought jazz into the mainstream. Additionally, the collaboration with Billy Strayhorn on Black Brown And Beige in 1943 established a thematic narrative. Exploring the African-American experience, Ellington showcased the piece at Carnegie Hall. He continued to extend the jazz idiom beyond its existing structures, writing many highly orchestrated works. An appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 revived his career.  A fascination with “fellow playwright” (Ellington considered himself an amateur playwright) William Shakespeare, resulted in Such Sweet Thunder, composed in 1957.

Dedicated to The Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, this twelve-song suite written by Ellington and Strayhorn is captivating. Described as his “attempt to parallel vignettes of Shakespearean characters”, the songs were conceived to emphasize the dramatic and contradictory nature of these characters. Utilizing his prodigious ensemble, the musical scope is enormous. On the title cut (inspired by the Othello/Desdemona romance, but whose genesis comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a classic jazz arrangement becomes transformed by the sultry trumpet of Ray Nance. Four sonnets of divergent styles are offered. “Sonnet To Hank Cinq” features a notable trombone solo on the shortest piece of the suite. Another, “Sonnet In Take” captures a moodiness with the trombone/plunger riffs of Quentin Jackson. “Sonnet In Search Of A Moor” is enticed by Ellington’s lyrical piano introduction followed by a subtle clarinet chorus and nimble bass (Jimmy Wood).  A complex, layered “Madness In Great Ones” focuses on Hamlet’s descent into mental anguish.  Cat Anderson’s screaming trumpet flourishes soar at the end of the number.

Things heat up with a jazzy waltz take on “Lady Mac”. This is big band swing at its best. Clark Terry turns in a dazzling solo, augmented by the power of the horn section. Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking is “Up And Down, Up And Down (I Will Lead Them Up And Down)". In a nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dual counterpoints are executed by alto (Russell Procope) and tenor saxophone (Paul Gonsalves), alto (Johnny Hodges) and valve trombone (John Sanders), clarinet (Jimmy Hamilton) and violin (Ray Nance). The classical illusion is driven by Nance’s scintillating violin runs. Terry’s saucy trumpet becomes the voice of Puck. Inventive pairing of saxophones (Hodges, Gonsalves) defines the universal narrative of doomed love in “Star-Crossed Lovers”.

All four parts of the work (tragedy, comedy, history and sonnets) comprise the “Circle Of Fourths”, a complicated finale that contemplates key shifts and interval musicality. The original liner notes by Irving Townsend are incisive. Great detail was taken in the original recording to provide a full range of instrumentation sound with separation and proper speaker balance. This 180 gram LP, with analogue audiophile re-mastering, has flawless acoustics, and reproduces the tone and symphonic flair of this stirring accomplishment though in mono.
TrackList, Side 1: Such Sweet Thunder; Sonnet For Caesar; Sonnet To Hank Cinq; Lady Mac; Sonnet In Search Of A Moor; The Telecasters
rackList, Side 2: Up And Down, Up And Down ( I Will Lead Them Up And Down); Sonnet For Sister Kate; The Star-Crossed Lovers; Madness In Great Ones; Half The Fun; Circle Of Fourth

— Robbie Gerson

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