Essence of Ellington

Philip ClarkFri 28th September 2012

William Parker’s new Duke Ellington album is so much more than a tribute to the great jazz legend

We live in a musical culture that refuses to shake the ghosts. As the Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin pointed out in his prophetic 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the one sure way to kill a work of art stone dead – to fatally undermine what Benjamin called its ‘aura’ – presumably the very thing a re-creation is trying to capture and preserve – is to remove that artwork from the time and space that created it.

But we’d promised you a blog post about Duke Ellington; about the greatness of Ellington the composer, as revealed in a new album by the New York bass player and composer William Parker – so why am I banging on about dead German philosophers? Benjamin came to mind a few weeks ago as I walked past Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho and noticed Frank Sinatra Jr on the playbill – ‘Sinatra sings Sinatra’ the listing said; fair enough, but only via a technicality. And then I went home and listened for the first time to Parker’s Essence of Ellington and was reminded of how profoundly Benjamin nailed the distinction between authentic creation and mere re-creation; the art of art against the craft of art: as Truman Capote waspishly put it, between ‘typing’ and ‘writing'.

In truth, most hat-tips on record to the jazz greats fail to live up to their billing, and Essence of Ellington opens with William Parker essentially conceding as much. On stage in Milan, where the album was recorded in February this year, Parker explains ‘playing the masters, you must not imitate them, but find your own way of presenting and playing the music...the concept of an essence’. Never sell Ellington short by pretending his legacy can be reduced down to the reflex action of responding to notes traced over transcriber’s manuscript paper. That’s what Parker’s plea boils down to. This is creative music. Divining the essence of Ellington means having the mettle to properly engage with his ideas as he understood and pursued them himself – about collaboration with musicians, about improvisation and composition.

But what sort of composer was Duke Ellington? I’ve spent much of the last year obsessing over what, in the great scheme of jazz, is relatively obscure Ellingtonia, but his Second Sacred Concert has so much to tell us about Ellington as composer, and is a work of such sincere and palpable beauty, that the vast amount of time I’ve indulged on it has been a jazz education in itself.

Ellington produced three Sacred Concerts. His second premiered in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City in 1968, after which Ellington and his orchestra, with various added choirs and vocalists – including that vocally double-jointed Stockholm-born singer Alice Babs – went forth and multiplied to document their handy work for prosperity in a studio. The recording is far from immaculate. Among other sins, Ellington’s choral parts have been clumsily patched over the instrumental music. But no matter. Pretty much from the off it’s apparent that Ellington is dealing with the deepest mysteries of the universe – order and chaos thrown into flux, man’s place within the cosmos – and that his musical language has buckled to accommodate the enormity of it all.

And yet this music is clearly by the man who penned hit records like ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’. The British jazz composer Mike Westbrook once told me that when Ellington referenced the blues that was his way of checking in with ‘fundamental truths’. The Second Sacred Concert does boast a classic blues: ‘The Shepherd (Who Watches Over The Night Flock)’, which Ellington performs call-and-response style with trumpeter Cootie Williams. Segueing towards the finale, ‘The Biggest And Busiest Intersection’ is one of those blues-anchored riff compositions (a close cousin of ‘Main Stem’ and ‘Midriff’) that Ellington could, you feel, have written entirely on autopilot. But circling around those stylistic markers is another kind of blue, music purpose specific to the spiritual multiverse of the Second Sacred Concert, meticulously composed music which has obviously stretched Ellington.

The prologue is ‘Praise God’. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney carries Ellington’s soulful theme, which as it hits its expressive peak, incorporates an exquisite enharmonic chromatic sidestep. Ellington always was the master of the exquisite enharmonic chromatic aside, but this particular sidestep teleports the music to a sacred realm indeed, towards the ideas Messiaen collated as ‘modes of limited transposition’; the illusion of harmony seemingly operating without fundamentals and thus stepping outside earthly concerns altogether.

As the Second Sacred Concert gathers force, there’s Ellington’s chromatic interval again in ‘Heaven’, a ballad reminiscent of ‘Prelude To A Kiss’, and again in ‘Almighty God’, now shimmying over an alert riff that hints at ‘St James Infirmary’, the wayback New Orleans standard much beloved of Louis Armstrong. ‘Praise God and Dance’, Ellington’s finale, climaxes with a violently fervent blues. But standing between us and it is a long recitative for Alice Babs that meanders in and out of tempo, etched around the most melodically fulsome version yet of Ellington’s sacred interval. The point being, the more Ellington invokes this interval, the greater the perspective; those blues-based fundamental truths earthing a wider harmonic context. That said, none of this can explain the out-and-out, daddy-o strangeness of Ellington’s extended second section, ‘Supreme Being’. The chorus intone a sort of hipster Sprechstimme complete with stylised glissandos that drop off words, as the instrumental parts persistently fragment. Fanfares fall over, harmonic patterns lead nowhere, vulnerable ‘arco’ bass soliloquies emerge from the ensemble. Another scared choral work beginning with a representation of chaos.

Which returns us to William Parker on stage in Milan, in front of his 14-piece big band, discussing the essence of Ellington. Here’s my idea: Essence of Ellington is the most profound Ellington tribute ever recorded because it’s so much more than a tribute. Parker dares to deal in that most fundamental truth of all – how do you ‘find your own way’ of presenting music that already has its own internal compositional integrity and identity? Ellington tribute albums that aim to re-create his original recorded performances are instantly timelocked, ignoring the obvious fact that his music lived, breathed and developed beyond the recording studio.

And so Parker’s ensemble is filled with musicians like saxophonists Darius Jones, Rob Brown and Kidd Jordan, the trumpeter Roy Campbell, drummer Hamid Drake and pianist Dave Burrell, all reinventing Ellington’s music through their experiences of the ecstasy of free jazz. Parker’s re-compositions symbolise the historic trajectory between then and now; ‘Sophisticated Lady’ gets prefaced by ‘Essence of Sophisticated Lady’, in which Ellington’s harmonic schemata is exploded from the inside, peppered with the vocal refrain ‘Sophisticated lady, where are you now?’ and re-birthed as a vehicle for improvisation. Of his re-imagined ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, ‘Take The “A” Train’ and ‘Caravan’, Parker says ‘The melody will be there but it will grow wings and give birth to new themes and gestures, sometimes going into trance as all sacred music eventually does.’ As the Second Sacred Concert amply demonstrates, Ellington kept himself perpetually contemporary; being authentic to the essence of what Ellington was as a composer means running with that spirit of renewal.
I remember sitting in Ronnie Scott’s many years ago listening to the British big band Echoes of Ellington as they played Duke note for note. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it; sitting in front of a big band is always a thrill. But an essence, it turns out, is more powerful than an echo.

William Parker’s Essence of Ellington is available now on Centering Records via

Watch Duke Ellington in action below:

Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.

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