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All That Jazz

From the Archives, New Entries in the Ellington Songbook

Containing the first recordings of songs from an unproduced musical, a new CD has a few gems but no real revelations.

April 12, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Great American Songbook, that de facto assortment of memorable tunes--often referred to as "standards"--encompasses material written during an astonishingly brief period of time. It's probably stretching the span, in fact, to say that most of the numbers were written in about three decades, from 1920 to 1950. Yet the products of this brilliant burst of creativity continue to be essential to the soundtrack of American life.

The writers considered the primary contributors to the songbook include the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart (and Hammerstein), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh. Rarely included in this grouping, despite his significant body of work, is Duke Ellington.

Most music fans, even serious jazz fans, are quick to acknowledge the fact that Ellington (often in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn) created some certified pop classics. Think "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," "In a Sentimental Mood," etc.

The list could go on, yet Ellington's obvious status as a bandleader, pianist and composer of some of the most vital and adventurous music of the 20th century has tended to eclipse his equally vibrant accomplishments as a songwriter.

Had he ever stopped touring and recording long enough to do what most of the songbook composers did--work in the musical theater--Ellington's identification as a master songwriter would undoubtedly have been more secure. But, had he done so, we might not have been the fortunate beneficiaries of his (and Strayhorn's) vast catalog of works for the Ellington ensemble.

Even so, Ellington did make a few stops in the musical theater along the way. Although he never managed to have a hit show, he did produce a few scores that deserved better treatment than they got: "Jump for Joy" (which ran from July through September 1941 at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles), "Beggar's Holiday" (which had 111 performances at New York City's Broadway Theatre in 1946-47), and the poorly received "Pousse-Cafe" in 1966.

It turns out that in 1958 Ellington and Strayhorn wrote the songs for yet another musical, "Saturday Laughter." Twenty-two numbers were composed to lyrics written by Herb Martin for a musical based on "Mine Boy," Peter Abrahams' novel about apartheid in South Africa. The production never found adequate financing, and the songs--until now--have remained in Ellington archives.

But a new CD, "Secret Ellington" (True Life Entertainment), offers the world premiere recording of 12 of the songs from "Saturday Laughter," performed by varying ensembles and singers. Among the participants: vocalists Ian Shaw, Freddy Cole, Jeffery Smith, Judi Silvano and Karen Oberlin, and instrumentalists Grover Washington Jr., Joe Lovano, George Mraz and Joe Beck. (The first concert performance of the songs took place at St. Peter's Church in Manhattan on April 15, 2000.)

There are no astounding revelations in the 14 tracks (two of the tunes are presented in alternate versions), primarily because Martin's lyrics are simply not in a class with Ellington/Strayhorn melodies and harmonies. Nor, on the recording, do the many differing instrumental combinations completely capture the Ellington musical mystique.

Even so, there are a few tunes in which Martin and Ellington clicked, and each deserves further hearings and further interpretations. "They Say," which was performed by Brock Peters at Ellington's funeral in 1974, is a poignantly uplifting combination of words and music, performed on the album by Cole with a lovely soprano saxophone accompaniment from Washington (in one of his final recordings). "Only Yesterday" is a ballad with a line that arches through typically colorful Ellingtonian harmonies.

But in other tunes--"You Are Beautiful" and "You Walk in My Dreams," for example--appealing melodies are overwhelmed by the banal simplicity of the lyrics.

How did Ellington manage to team up with a lyricist who was so far out of his league? Good question, no real answer. But the more pertinent query may be why good theater writers weren't climbing over each other's backs in an effort to team up with a composer so obviously capable of creating timeless musical works of art.

Don't Buy This Record: It's called "Verve Remixed," and it may be the worst travesty ever perpetrated upon unsuspecting jazz artists (half of whom aren't around to complain about it).

Here's the deal: Verve has taken recordings by Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and others, and turned them over to remix masters (who shall be mercifully left nameless). What they have done to lovely performances such as McRae's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and Vaughan's "Summertime" represents a pathetic example of their lack of creative imagination. What they have done to Holiday's "Don't Explain" and "Strange Fruit" is criminal.

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