Overlooked Masterpieces By Dukes, Blanton-Strayhorn-Webster Band
Duke Ellington’s studio sides at the top of the 1940s contain some of the most revered music in Jazz history. The “Blanton, Strayhorn, Webster Band” of this period, named so for the order in which bassist Jimmie Blanton, arranger/composer/ deputy pianist Billy Strayhorn, and tenor Ben Webster joined the Ellington fold, produced a number of unparalleled masterpieces: “Ko-Ko,” “In A Mellotone,” “Concerto For Cootie,” and “Take The A-Train.”
After severing ties with his manager and partner, Irving Mills, and getting a new record contract with RCA Victor, Duke experienced a rebirth. For every “I Got It Bad” or “In A Mellotone” there are plenty of exceptional works not anywhere as near familiar. Many of these, particularly those with vocals, by Ivie Anderson or Herb Jeffries, are particularly forgotten and when remembered have occasional been dismissed by critics. There are plenty of overlooked instrumentals as well.
Ivie Anderson was one of the best assets Duke had. Her spot-on pitch, and assured phrasing illuminated nearly every song she sang. Be it the understated elegance of “So Far, So Good,” (from the band’s first Victor session of March 6, 1940), the oh-so swinging delivery of the (slightly trite) lyrics to “At A Dixie Roadside Diner,” (1940) or the blues drenched “Rocks In My Bed,” (1941), Anderson’s allure lies in her artistic ability to convey the meaning of a song, rather than just ‘put-it-over.’
The ‘boy’ singer with the band in this period, Herb Jeffries, still living and a centenarian, also contributed some fine vocals. While not as technically assured as Anderson, he nevertheless was able to handle any material given to him; no small feat, considering the company he was in. Again, on their March 6, 1940 Victor session, (the first number in fact), Jeffries takes the vocal on a lovely ballad “You, You Darlin.’” Following a piano intro, and opening melody statement, with a fetching use of Harry Carney’s baritone given the 9th of the chord, instead of the expected lowest root, and ensemble chorus, Jeffries sings the refrain. It’s not flashy, or gimmicky, but a pleasing straightforward delivery of the song’s lyric. Other notable moments include “There Shall Be No Night,” (1940), “Flamingo,” his best known vocal from this period (1940), and “What Good Would It Do,” (1941). Combined with Ellington’s brilliant arrangements, as well as eminently danceable tempos, these recordings represent a very underappreciated side of Duke.
[An aside: Dance-ability is another facet of this period, which most are unaware of. This was The Swing Era, social dancing was an integral part of the period, and these arrangements were made for people to dance too! One cannot overlook the context of their time].
Among instrumentals, “Blue Goose,” (1940), and “Jumpin’ Punkins,” (1941) standout. “Goose,” is a most underrated gem; from the opening first chorus juxtaposition of Johnny Hodges on soprano sax, followed by Carney on baritone, through solos by Ben Webster, and Lawrence Brown, and a spectacularly high-pitched passage for reeds, closing with Hodges on soprano. “Punkins” is almost a feature for the rhythm section, with exceptional work from drummer Sonny Greer, Jimmie Blanton, and Duke, not-to-mention guitarist Fred Guy.
“Bakiff,” “Moon Over Cuba,” and “Conga Brava,” explored the Latin-Jazz vein, frequently with the co-authorship of Juan Tizol. In the “Mood Indigo” schism, the well-known “Dusk,” and “A Lull at Dawn,” [by a smaller group from the orchestra under Barney Bigard’s leadership] (both 1940), warrent mentioning; their haunting beauty ever encapsulating the listener.
With Ellington’s massive recorded output there are bound to be recordings that get lost in the shuffle. With the freshness, and appeal of Ellington during the 1940-42 period, however, there’s really nothing from this era that deserves neglect. They may be slightly commercial, include a vocal chorus, or have been composed with social dancing in mind: but that was perfectly logical for The Swing Era! All one has to do is dig just a little deeper than the emphasized masterpieces, and appreciate the music. I hope my examples and insights help you do that.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]