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Feature

Out of the jungle came sophistication

The release of a unique 24-CD Duke Ellington collection shows
why jazz musicians can never resist the temptation to interpret him.
A centenary tribute to the
big band master who roared
against treacly sentimentality

No, it wasn't the roar of static, although BBC on the short-wave radio can sound like that. It was the sound of a lion roaring, mimicked by Rex Stewart's cornet, part of a track called Menelik, the lion of Judah. A tribute to Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Ethiopia, it was from a unique 24-CD boxed set of half-forgotten jazz recordings issued to celebrate the centenary this April of Duke Ellington.

Ellington, composer of several thousand tunes and leader of a jazz big band that lasted over half a century with a low turnover of personnel, had always been fascinated with unusual sounds produced by musical instruments in the hands of inventive musicians. One of the few musicians who stayed only a short while in the band, a trumpeter called Bubber Miley, started it all when he used a plumber's plunger as a mute for his horn to create a vibrating sound that became famous as ''growl''. Rarely afterwards did the Ellington orchestra lack growl specialists for trumpet/ cornet and trombone.

Unusual sounds in unusual tunes was what Ellington came up with when his charter, during his first big contract as bandleader at the Cotton Club in New York, required a supply of ''jungle'' music for the rich clients' entertainment. Mood indigo, East St Louis toodle-oo, and The mooche were just a few of the gems from this period in the mid-20s when jazz was capturing American audiences but falling into the trap of becoming indistinguishable from pop music. While most black bandleaders maintained the distinction with very vigorous playing, a stress on solos with improvisation, and strict avoidance of treacly sentimentality, Ellington added his own features to keep a distance from ''sweet'' music.

One such feature was breathtaking variety in instrumentation, a logical extension of unusual sounds and unusual tunes. Ellington composed and arranged not just for specific instruments but for specific musicians. Parts were reserved for growl trumpeters, high-register trumpeters, and so on. A tune such as Passion flower, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, whose smooth glide from note to note added to the emotional intensity of a number, couldn't be played by any other saxophonist.

Yet Ellington's musicians did have the freedom to improvise, for the arrangements specified who was to come in when with a solo, with which he could do whatever he liked. An Ellington concert or dance engagement would offer a breathtaking variety of pieces. It might, for instance, have a number that was practically a piano-bass duo, such as Dancers in love, with himself on piano and Alvin Raglin Jr on bass, in the album Sophisticated Ellington. (Indeed, Jimmy Blanton, who died very young, was the first jazz bassist to play melodies and solos, as an Ellington band member in the early '40s.) Another number might have a quartet or a septet from the full 15-member band. Again, it could have the solos or even the theme played by one musician, or there could be several soloists. No wonder Ellington once said ''My orchestra is my instrument''. All of which made for music sophisticated in conception and performance, as urbane and sophisticated as himself.

Every piece got different treatment. The particular arrangement in it of sound textures or ''colours'' from different instrumentalists invited comparisons with a painting. Indeed, Ellington had passed up a scholarship to study art when he had to earn his living by music. And in later years he could produce a radically different ''painting'' by changing the instruments, as he did with many hits such as Caravan from Money Jungle. This trio album with Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums dates from 1962, a period when Ellington frequently gave his band a holiday and jammed with a small group to do something different. Typically, these were sessions in which Ellington's piano, habituated to mostly playing an accompanying role with rare solos in a big band setting, came into its own with a drummer and a bassist, together with a leading exponent of the tenor sax or trumpet thrown in.

All his life, however, his accustomed setting was his big band. It had survived the be-bop/ small group revolution in the '40s. It had suffered changes in fashion. Then, at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves reeled off an astonishing seven-minute solo on Diminuendo in blue and crescendo in blue to set every foot in the audience stomping madly and get Ellington onto the cover of Time, proclaiming ''Duke's back!''

The band went all over the world with him -- each trip inspiring him to compose new gems such as The African suite and The Far East suite, Isfahan, and Bluebird of Delhi (mynah). And as he grew older, ''his instrument'' stayed with him till the end, while he gently allowed his own instrument, the piano, to come into its own more and more often. When he died in 1974 at 75, he left behind an immortal legacy, for hardly a jazz musician worth the name can avoid the temptation of interpreting Ellington music.

Jazzebel

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