Sunday, November 10, 2013

Duke Ellington's Liberian Suite: I Like The Sunrise

To answer the question from the last post:

Is I Like The Sunrise a love song?  Not in any traditional sense of the phrase.  This is not Prelude To A Kiss, nor is it even a melancholy Sophisticated Lady or a sad I Got It Bad (And That Aint' Good).  And it most definitely is not a flirtatious Don't Get Around Much Anymore.  If this is a love song at all, then the object of the affections of the vocalist is not a former or present lover; the object of his affections is God.

In what topical tradition does I Like The Sunrise fit?  What other suite would it most appropriately fit into if Duke had decided to re-purpose it for later use (as he did with quite a few of his tunes)?  This tune, in my opinion, is essentially a prayer.  The early Americo-Liberian settlers undertook a treacherous journey on inadequately-provisioned boats to a hostile jungle coastline where natives had no interest in being conquered by the Americo former slaves.  Many died during the first months, and more died during the first years, of the various "in-Africa" colonies (e.g., Mississippi-in-Africa, Kentucky-in-Africa, etc.) that would later become Liberia.  Those who survived would have been fully aware of the similarities between the Biblical Exodus and their own miraculous life stories.  This is especially true because the Americo-Liberian settlers, and the white American Colonization Society that financed them, had in mind not only the purpose of repatriating freedmen to Africa but also the purpose of spreading Christianity to the backward native tribes.  Like the early missionaries sent by various European nations to other regions of Africa, the black Americo colonists were driven in significant part by a desire to spread their faith.

As in virtually all major religious liturgical traditions, the prayer entails not just an unadorned request for God's assistance, but also--and first--an expression of thanksgiving for the miracles that God has already provided the praying lead vocalist.  Indeed, and again consistent with virtually all major religious liturgical traditions, the expression of gratitude comes first, and only after the vocalist has established that he does indeed "like the sunrise" (i.e., that he appreciates God's miracles in his life) does he then reference his own needs ("every evening, I wish upon a star, that my brand-new bright tomorrow isn't very far" and the final "I hope it likes poor me").

The closest analogy in terms of attitude, style, and temperament to this tune is probably Duke's Come Sunday, which was originally part of his only symphony, Black, Brown & Beige and which was, itself, many times re-packaged for use in other contexts without reference to the original role (which was, in fact, the hopeful prayer of the slave during the first movement of BB&B).  Therefore, I would suggest that if Duke had ever re-packaged this tune for use in another suite, that suite would probably have been one of his three Sacred Concerts, in which Come Sunday itself found its final resting place.

Vocalists, Bari Players, And The Liturgical Ballad

High school vocalists need to be careful in adopting an appropriate tone and attitude for this chart.  I expect (though I do not look forward to it) that most vocalists in "High School Band U.S.A." will sing this tune as though it was a love song ballad, or something in the nature of Oliver Nelson's alto sax feature Penthouse Dawn.  If so, then shame on any band director who fails to make it clear to his vocalist that this is a prayer.  The vocalist should at no point sound sweet, sentimental, or flirtatious; any such attitudes are completely out of place in this tune.  Listen to any of the Ellington Sacred Concerts for a sense of the vocal style that best works in this tradition.  This is a very serious piece, and the serious tone is consistent from the beginning of the chart through to the end.

Even the choice of the melody soloist for the second chorus provides a clear sense of the attitude involved.  Harry Carney's baritone saxophone solo is not a risque Hodges alto solo (compare Flirtibird, another tune in this year's Essentially Ellington repertoire), nor is it a lusty Webster/Gonsalves tenor solo (compare Chelsea Bridge, recorded by both tenor men), nor is it even akin to the classic slow-dance ballad of Sophisticated Lady.  This is the voice of a man whose back is still coursed with welts from the whip of his former master, standing on the beach of a savage jungle coast, having watched dozens of his fellow immigrants die from malaria and typhus, watching the sun come up on a new day and asking God for His assistance in building a new life in a land he has never been to, knows nothing about, and has no real understanding of.

The same also goes for the drummer, who may be providing the voice of the native tribes, and for the brass, who sound as though they are the rising sun that the vocalist and bari give recognition to.

This is a profound and profoundly serious piece.  Play it like you understand that.

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