Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Duke Ellington's Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: Chinoiserie (Gary Giddins Commentary)

Here is what Gary Giddins, writing in the Village Voice, had to say in his review of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse upon its posthumous release in 1976: “The posthumous works of no major contemporary artist have inspired greater interest than Duke Ellington's, except perhaps for Hemingway's. The '60s saw a stunning rejuvenation in Ellington the composer and the result was both a series of sacred concerts and the far more ecumenical suites based on geographical motifs. Three of the most ambitious and successful works issued on record during the last decade of his life were 'The Far East Suite,' 'Ad Lib on Nippon,' and 'The Latin American Suite.' But there were other suites and extended works that have never appeared on record. Moreover, there were rumors of major pieces which Ellington committed to tape but never or rarely performed. It isn't generally known what was preserved and what wasn't. In the past, he had neglected to get studio time for 'The Deep South Suite' and, more incredibly, the complete 'Black, Brown and Beige,' so how can we be sure we'll ever hear 'Timon of Athens,' 'Murder in the Cathedral,' or 'The Goutelas Suite'?1

“Well, at least we can now be reasonably sure about 'The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,' recorded by Ellington in 1971 and issued this month by Fantasy (9498). I say reasonably because the record has eight parts while the list of copyrighted compositions in 'Music Is My Mistress' suggests twelve. In any case, its long-awaited release should be cause for rejoicing throughout the land.

“For reasons known only to himself, Ellington chose to tease the public about the 'Eclipse.' He would continuously perform the first part, 'Chinoiserie,' preceded by a mysterious spoken introduction that included several cross-cultural references and made mention of the longer work, but he generally kept the other selections under wraps. Fantasy has included that bit of verbal shadow-play on the record and I'm glad – not only for reasons of sentiment, but because behind the hocus-pocus is a clear and revealing explanation for the travel suites in general. Ellington never attempted to reproduce the music of other cultures; his impressions were ingeniously respectful but entirely idiomatic. While quoting McLuhan's observation that cultures are losing their identity, he ironically implies that his music – remember his statement on first visiting Africa: 'After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa!' – is not only broad-based enough to encompass the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of other musics, but can retain its own identity in the process.

“Just as 'Latin American Suite' was melodic in motive, 'Afro-Eurasian Eclipse' is about rhythm, one-chord harmonies, and chants. This one-world music reflects the ongoing jazz tradition as well: r&b, rock 'n' roll, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor are all worn into the fabric. I don't mean to suggest that Ellington consulted Taylor before sitting down at the piano for 'Didjeridoo' – which is virtually a piano concerto built on the premise that the piano is a percussion instrument – but I do suggest that Ellington's genius was heightened by his sensitivity to the music of his time. Borges demonstrated that Hawthorne became a prophetic writer in the post-Kafka world; in that sense, much that is indigenous to Ellington is differently perceived in a world so manifestly altered by him. Harold Ashby's solo on 'Chinoiserie' is surely avant-garde.

“The 'Eclipse' may be Ellington's only extended work bereft of a single brass solo. It's constructed around the reeds and the rhythm section. 'Chinoiserie' is the most complex piece, alternating between eight- and 10-measure themes. It is plotted thus: A(10), A(10), B(8), C(8), A1(14), A2(10). The A-theme, strongly reminiscent of Horace Silver, is rhythmically constructed on a hesitation in the fourth beat of the second bar. The rhythmic equilibrium is deliberately tenuous: The A-theme picks up from the piano vamp – based on one note – a beat late, while the 14-measure variation on A begins a beat before expected. Following the 60-measure theme is Ashby's greatest moment on records, a gallivanting, eupeptic solo using both the eight- and 10-measure patterns, aggressively supported by Ellington's piano, and culminating in a wildly exciting stuttering, shimmying stomp over static rhythm.

“'Acht O'Clock Rock' begins with two blues choruses by Ashby, followed by a 32-bar theme for piano, another two blues choruses, and 32 bars for the ensemble with Norris Turney out front. It combines openhearted r&b with ominous chord substitutions. Ellington makes the piano sound like a marimba, and I do believe I hear an organ in parts, though none is listed in the notes.2 'Hard Way' is a 16-bar blues for Turney, with a four-measure interlude sewn in. The inexplicably titled 'True' is actually an old friend, 'Tell Me the Truth,' from the first Sacred Concert, but this time it's been refurbished with a bright, bustling arrangement that features Paul Gonsalves, who's in high spirits. The only movement I find less than successful is 'Tang,' a heady concoction that begins well enough with dissonant chords and an erupting piano figure, but proves to be an exercise in redundancy, with two themes – one 12 bars, the other eight – traded between Harry Carney and the ensemble, and a rhythm riff thrown in four times along the way. 'Gong' is a blues for Ellington and Carney, with a delicious flute and clarinet chorus, and 'Afrique,' appropriately, is both a drum feature for Rufus Jones and an exercise in the percussion value of all the other instruments.

“I've only scratched at the surface. After the 'Afro-Eurasian Eclipse' one has every reason to be optimistic and avaricious in awaiting the rest of the legacy Ellington reserved for posterity.”3
(Gary Giddins, “Duke Eclipses the Didjeridoo,” Village Voice (5 April 1976), 104-5, in Mark Tucker, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader 379-81).

1The Goutelas Suite appears on the album The Ellington Suites. A 95%-complete recording in modern studios with high-fidelity recording equipment (rather than the awful sound quality of the 1943 Carnegie Hall recording) of Black, Brown & Beige appears on The Private Collection: Volume Ten (and was also later recorded by Ellington alumni Louie Bellson and Clark Terry on their album Duke Ellington: Black, Brown & Beige). The Deep South Suite can be found in a studio recording on The Chronological Classics: 1946 and a live recording on The Great Chicago Concerts. Unfortunately, even now, Timon of Athens and Murder in the Cathedral may never be released—and may have never been recorded. (Certainly, if they had been recorded, one would have expected those recordings to have emerged in the 39 years that have now passed since the death of the maestro!) The March from Timon of Athens appears on several recordings, including The Duke At Tanglewood, but the complete suite is unknown aside from a later recording by a third-party orchestra. I am unaware of any recordings of any portions of Murder in the Cathedral.

2I also hear organ, probably the work of William “Wild Bill” Davis (b. 1918), who was associated with Ellington's orchestra from 1969 to 1971, and who also made numerous small group recordings with Johnny Hodges and other Ellington sidemen.

3Giddins' words were prophetic. Innumerable private and unreleased Ellington recordings were made available in the four decades following his death. Even today, one occasionally sees previously-unreleased alternate takes trickling out on new releases from such labels as Denmark's Storyville Records, among others.

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