Monday, September 14, 2015

CD Review: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - The Conny Plank Session

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra 
The Conny Plank Session

Worlds are colliding here. 

Conny Plank, the German studio producer/engineer who would later work with Kraftwerk, Scorpions, Ultravox and Killing Joke, crossed paths with Duke Ellington when the esteemed bandleader was in Germany during 1970. How it happened isn't exactly clear, but it seems as if Duke wanted to rent out a studio space for rehearsal and/or wanted to record the session for future reference. Plank got the gig most likely through his connection to Wolfgang Hirschmann, the main engineer for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) big band. 

What came from the session probably won't offer major revelations or speculations about the meeting. Band lineup is sketchy to everyone except Ellington experts, who probably know the whole chronology of his bands. The session only contains three takes each of two different Ellington compositions, totaling about 30 minutes of music. (Two of them have even been released previously, according to lore.) But by and large, each one offers differences that show the Ellington mind at work.

"Alerado" is a bright, uptempo number that spotlights organist Wild Bill Davis, who answers the melody line played by the horns. He gets solo space, as does a trumpeter identified in the press kit as Cat Anderson, though the buttery brass almost sounds like a flugelhorn, suggesting it could be Clark Terry. A tenor saxophone comes up in the coda too.

The first two takes sound like they were only considered as reference recordings. Take 1 cuts off abruptly, though close to what would be the end of the tune. Take 2 has some microphone noise in, like a stand is being adjusted or someone's shuffling past it. Take 3 moves at a slower tempo with an alto solo.

Fine as that one sounds, "Afrique" is the more intriguing tune. Built on a tom-tom riff, it's the sound of Ellington updating his take on cinematic music. No stranger to soundtracks, Duke creates what could be chase music from a then-current film. Low brass answers high reeds, plunger mutes abound, and counter-rhythms skate on top of the tom beat, not always completely in sync with it. Take One is a two minutes longer than the other two, stopping before the end. Two and three add fast upper register bass strums and make it to the final minor chord blast (imagine the end of a climactic chase!), following a tenor cadenza that might 45 years later, builds a bridge to Archie Shepp's trio version of "Sophisticated Lady."

The wildest moment of the disc comes in Take Three of "Afrique," which adds an unidentified soprano vocalist. Speculation has suggested that the pipes might belong to Plank's wife or a "Scandinavian mistress of Duke's" but whomever it is, she possesses a range like Yma Sumac with a delivery that blends that artist with the fervor of Diamanda Galas. She doesn't really add to the performance, but in this context - rife with pure discovery and speculation - it feels entertaining.

[Weird things that happened while writing this review. For one thing, I tried to find out some more info about the lineup of the Ellington Orchestra on this disc, to no avail. Usually I don't like going in half-informed, because I'm sure there's someone out there now, who can rattle off everyone's name. So be it.

Second, while trying to find a link to a website for Grönland Records, I feel like I very nearly got hacked, with an annoying beep like an alarm clock blaring at a high pitch, and a blue screen coming up with a warning to call a 1-866 number. Normally I encourage purchases directly from the label, but this really freaked me out, so buyers should have a record store order it for them instead, if you ask me.)

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