Disc of the month, May 2012 – Live Ellington gets me hot ‘n’ bothered

by wijeratneworks

This past academic season, I taught composition at Acadia University while my esteemed colleague Derek Charke (of recent JUNO fame) was away on Sabbatical. It was a sincere pleasure for me to work with the students of the department. The personal perks of travelling to the gorgeous town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, each week included the two hours of solitude I got to spend in the car. Prime opportunity for listening to lots of music, my favourite NPR show (On Point), and all the awesome BBC  radio shows I download onto my iPod (more on how I actually rip these later, evil laugh). Naturally this post can take me on any number of tangents from here on, but I’ll stick to the point and mention that one of the BBC programs on vintage Big Bands got me a serious Duke Ellington habit. I’ve had this addiction before, in college. It’s rather pleasant, I warn you. Needing my Ellington fix, I come across a totally random CD in the Acadia Library entitled ‘Hot Summer Dance’. It’s a winner for me in every sense. I listened to it non-stop for several days.

I should say that Ellington ‘Live’ is very special indeed. It’s not as clean as some of the studio stuff, but boy does it have fire. Has there ever been another Big Band of Big personalities, crammed into one unified unit, led by such vision to create such electric performances? The problem is that capturing them ‘live’ is not easy by any means. Enter producer Bob Thiele, who has somehow mic-ed up these guys with startling intimacy. We get the sense of the largesse of the venue’s acoustic – a ‘hot’ summer dancehall – and yet the intimacy of the band is right there: their comments to each other; Duke’s count-ins (gotta love ’em); the breathiness of the wind playing in all its glorious nuance. At last we have stereo depth from a live Ellington album.

I could go on an on, but you should listen to a track for yourself.

There are no decent clips out there, so I uploaded a favourite track to Youtube. It’s not on iTunes, but you can buy a hard copy from amazon.com. Interestingly, I decided not to choose an Ellington original, but his arrangement of a popular standard. The magic of this ensemble is all there: the sheer creativity of the groove, almost lop-sided sounding; Duke’s articulation on the piano, endearingly shaky; Jimmy Hamilton’s first phrase (swoon); the way the orchestration builds organically and effortlessly toward that first big tutti.