Friday, November 15, 2013

Duke Ellington's Liberian Suite: Reissue Liner Notes

So here is what the liner notes to the CD reissue of The Liberian Suite (as extra tracks on the CD reissue of Ellington Uptown) have to say about the suite. We'll see momentarily whether Duke was painting a somewhat rosier picture of Liberia than its majority of native residents would have painted at the time: “Ellington's impassioned 'Liberian Suite' was his first to follow the formal suite form and his second commercially released LP, a ten-inch, October 3, 1949. Although subsequently reissued by Columbia on a twelve-inch LP, backed by 'A Tone Parallel To Harlem,” and on both LP and CD in France, this is the first time since 1949 that 'Liberian Suite' has been presented as originally recorded. Interim releases have contained an error—a three-second suspension of sound during Dance #2. For this CD, co-producer Michael Cuscuna emphasizes, 'We went back to the acetates for the first time since the original tape transfers, and the sound is wonderful.'

“Discographers and historians agree that the entire instrumental suite was first recorded December 24, 1947, two days before its Carnegie Hall premiere. An unsolved puzzle is why the first 'Liberian' acetate bears a handwritten date of May 19, 1947 with the notation that the vocal is to be overdubbed later. It is also agreed that Al Hibbler was recorded afterward.1 The date of, or reason for, his overdub is reported only in contradictory press reports in Billboard and other publications. The May date is not viable because documentation exists on the band's activities that day—six stageshows at the New York Paramount Theater and Duke was guest soloist with the Percy Faith Orchestra on NBC's 'Carnation Contented Hour.' Also, the procrastinating, deadline-driven Ellington never completed any project seven months ahead of time.

“Duke invited an awed 19-year-old timpanist, Elayne Jones, 1945 winner of a Duke Ellington scholarship to the Julliard School of Music, to December 'Liberian' rehearsals and to play with the band at Carnegie Hall. Witnessing the suite being composed—or assembled—was the antithesis of her academic education: 'Duke would write something on paper,' she relates, 'hand it to Billy Strayhorn, or Billy would be writing something.2 There was this man who sat with a cigar in his mouth and a hat on (copyist/arranger Tom Whaley), and he would orchestrate it. Then they would hand it out, and it was, 'Okay, guys, let's play.''

“Reports vary as to whether Jones played on the 'Liberian' recording at Leiderkranz Hall [the studio recording]. In 2003, listening intently to this recording, Jones hears herself: 'My little contribution comes shortly after the very poignant violin solo...I was transported back to the day of the recording, and I was able to visualize...'

“For Lester Horton, the innovative West Coast choereographer who staged 'Liberian Suite' in 1952, Ellington verbalized his musical vision of the Republic of Liberia:

''I Like The Sunrise' depicts the spirit of the people who left America to settle in Africa in 18473 from the perspective of man beaten down by the mail fist of slavery...The sunrise symbolizes hope. If you have another day, you have another chance.'

“Duke described a tribal chieftain arriving at the modern city [presumably Monrovia], marveling at technological wonders, celebrating with his people, romantic liaisons, merriment, achievement, brotherhood and fulfillment, concluding, 'As a painter does not achieve effect with pure color, I contrived to mix quantities in this orchestration as if I were working from a palette. The individual instruments don't mean a thing. The feeling of the resultant blend is much more important.'”

1Indeed, you also have the original instrumental recording, without Hibbler's overdubbed vocal. It is a unique document (and, more importantly for you all, a unique practice tool!) that allows you to hear (and practice with!) the Ellington orchestra exactly as heard on the full track but with the vocalist removed. You may find this an effective way to listen more carefully to your particular instrumental part(s) without the distraction of the vocalist.

2Schuller alludes to the invisible hand of Strayhorn, as well: “By 1945, when Ellington was devoting more and more time to longer extended works, Strayhorn did most of the day-to-day arranging, as well as becoming increasingly involved as co-composer and orchestrator with the larger works (like The Perfume Suite and The Liberian Suite).” (Schuller, The Swing Era 134).

3Even the chronology is not altogether accurate. The several Liberian colonies (which ultimately formed the counties of the unified Liberian nation, much like the several British colonies along the Eastern seaboard ultimately formed the states of the federal United States) were settled in waves over a period beginning in the late 1810's and continuing under a white supervisory government until the turnover of power to the Americo-Liberian blacks in 1847 under a constitution of their own.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there --

    RE: The missing three seconds from "Dance #2". That's wrong. Those three seconds are indeed missing, but from the LP-releases of "Black, Brown & Beige". The last section is "Three Dances"; there is a skip in #1 which is nt on the UK-10"-release which I have.

    By the way: The Duke's very first lengthy suite-like effort was "Reminiscing In Tempo", 1935. -- "B,B&B" was his 2nd attempt to compose a longer form, 1943/44.