ELLINGTON: Harlem (orch. Peress). Black, Brown, and Beige Suite (orch.
Peress). Three Black Kings (orch. M. Ellington). The River (orch.
Collier). STRAYHORN: Take the "A" Train (arr. E. Ellington).
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Faletta.
Naxos 8.559737 TT: 78:30
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Misbegotten from the get-go. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington
has finally come into something like his own after years of ignorant
and ignoring patronizing from many within the classical-music crowd.
happened to George Gershwin. In his classic Music in a New Found Land,
the British critic Wilfrid Mellers may have been the first to link the
two in a meaningful way. Gershwin approached jazz from the perspective
of classical music, while Ellington approached classical music from the
perspective of jazz. At any rate, since the stigma of "vulgarity" has
largely been removed from Ellington's music, symphony orchestras want
to play him, both for the high quality of the music and because, as with
they know they can fill seats.
The problem is that Ellington was one of the great orchestrators of all
time, and he wrote specifically for an entity known as the Ellington
Band. He chose the players, he knew the players and their individual
and he had the uncanny ear to merge these highly idiosyncratic colors
into a powerful ensemble. The critic Terry Teachout notes that Ellington
chose players whose sounds didn't "fit in" neatly. Somehow
he heard both their individual contribution and their place in the whole.
The Ellington Band sounded like no other, and in some ways they sounded
rougher, less streamlined than the Basie, the Lunceford, the Goodman,
(certainly) the Miller band. A major strength of Ellington's music is
its color, in many senses of the word, and no other composer or arranger
the big swing bands, excepting Billy Strayhorn, came close to Ellington's
orchestral audacity, variety, and sheer flair.
This is just to say that none of these arrangements, save one, come up
to Ellington, let alone improve him. Furthermore, almost all of them exist
in Duke's own recordings. So why would you want this? What aesthetic purpose
does it serve? I can understand the need and the art of arranging one of
Ellington's songs or short dance pieces for a specific singer or group,
but not of Ellington's big works. He should be treated as you would treat
Bach or Beethoven. At least give him the chance to fail or succeed on his
own. It almost doesn't matter how well sham Ellington is done, it's still
sham Ellington. Why settle?
All that said, I'd still like to say some words about Black, Brown,
and Beige and Three Black Kings. The first is probably Ellington's masterpiece,
even though he prettified the 1943 original. That original ran close to
three-quarters of an hour. Ellington intended it as a history and celebration
of African-Americans in the United States. It is by far his most ambitious
work. The critics mauled it. Fortunately somebody recorded the concert,
and it's available on CD (Prestige 2PCD-34004-2). The work speaks with
incredible power, a classic case of initial critical cluelessness. Hurt,
Ellington withdrew the piece, and later salvaged some of the music into
a kind of Official Portrait. He hacked out ten minutes and prettified the
orchestration. It's still Ellington and therefore worth listening to, but
I think he did himself no favors. The result is too smooth by half, compared
to the raw original, and that rawness I consider the score's major strength.
Ellington, a world-class procrastinator, left the ballet Three Black
Kings unfinished at the time of his death. His son, Mercer Ellington,
completed the work. Mercer had years of experience arranging for the
and understood its sound as well as anyone else alive. His art resulted
in one of his father's most beautiful scores, three meditations on "The
King of the Magi," "King Solomon," and "Martin Luther
King," the last intended as an elegy. "MLK" swings gracefully
and easily without a trace of the somber, capturing the dignity of its
JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalodians give fine readings in great sound.
They actually swing without sounding like stiffs. Maurice Peress does much
of the same material on a Nimbus import, but Falletta passes him. Unfortunately,
she also competes mainly against Duke himself and predictably comes up
I complain about Naxos's production. The program list gives the year of
Three Black Kings, which the notes describe as "the last score to
emerge from Ellington's prolific pen" as 1934. Ellington died in
1974. He may have put things off, but never by that much.
S.G.S. (October 2014)