EXPLORING MUSIC: A DIRECT TRIBUTE /THIS ONE'S FOR BLANTON
The MHS Review 398 VOL. 12, NO.2 • 1988
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The great directors of jazz movements bring out the best in their individual musicians, and in that ability lies their genius. Benny Goodman played a tightly proficient and technically clean sounding clarinet, giving clues to his style of band directing (incidentally setting the course of swing through much of the '40s). That is, Goodman was the consummate businessman of music, carefully picking his sidemen for their innovative styles and then giving them highly crafted arrangements that exploited their particular instruments for ensemble and solo playing. The late Woody Herman, no businessman at all, picked young players whose energy allowed the band to build a dynamic from within, inspiring all with a charisma that made the Herman Herds famous for their building power.
But the Duke is the most enigmatic of them all. Ellington's style of direction and inspiration as the century's greatest jazz orchestra leader can best be described as "flirtatious flattery." Anyone who saw the Ellington band live knows the pattern. He would usually enter the stage, alone or with a small rhythm section and often unannounced, where he would sit at the piano and play with those lush romantic chords he was known for. After ten minutes or so the rest of the band would saunter out, looking desultory and tired, and take their seats and you began to wonder if you could get your money back. Then would come that famous signature of "A Train" and the evening was off to a series of transitional moods and emotions with the Duke performing his pivotal role, now flattering the ladies in the audiences with his impeccable rhetoric, now the musicians.
And it always worked. There was perversity in this elaborate praise as we know from the endless choruses Ellington got from his sidemen even when they were in pain (trumpeter Cootie Williams with his bad dentures being a case in point). But we all fell for it every time, with the result that musician and audience alike felt the full emotional range of courtship in the presence of the Ellington elegant graciousness.
That obsequiousness works especially well in this album. Ellington's tinkling playing, which strikes one as noodling, is nothing less than a come-on for the powerful slings of Ray Brown's authoritative bass. Just as he does in his orchestrational arrangements, Ellington sets moods by framing a phrase here, reminiscing over a melody there by lingering on a pedal, and fooling around with the high end of the keyboard here. Brown takes the bait like a hungry perch and on "Sophisticated Lady" gives us an introductory solo that is at once so "baroque" and yet so full of sighs and moans that we are not sure where we are in this romance.
As in every love affair, there is wit and good humor in this one. The serious title for side two, "Fragmented Suite," needs decoding, for the first movement is a play on "Caravan" while the second is an inverted "Moonglow," and the third nothing less than Jack Benny's theme song "Lovenest." Delicious--all of it.
The album title refers to Jimmy Blanton, a young bassist who died tragically at 21 after a short stint in the Ellington band of the '40s. He revolutionized bass playing by fleet-fingered eighth-note plucking of solos and grace notes on an instrument which had only been used for rhythm accompaniment before then. All bassists since then stand in his debt, and Brown pays him direct tribute in this virtuoso performance.