Thursday, April 24, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #104 - Duke Ellington – The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

A lot of people associate Duke’s music mainly with the 1920’s up through the WWII era, but there is no point in his 50-year career where he was not refining and advancing his music, right up until his death in 1974. From his Cotton Club “jungle band” of the 20’s through his redefinition of big band swing in the late 30’s to his dance bands of the 50’s to his senior patronage of the stars of 60’s New Thing jazz, he changed his approach, constantly absorbed the newest styles and continually retained his own sound – and his big band – through every change. The late 60’s and early 70’s brought a renaissance in his music, leading up to a great series of albums of which 1971’s The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse is one of the finest – and my own personal favorite of the later period, even over the renowned The Far East Suite (though maybe I’d have to think long and hard about whether I like it better than And His Mother Called Him Bill).
            The album kicks off with a spoken introduction by Duke, who explains the title concept – a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan – and lets us know that the band (featuring “our piano player” as he was wont to refer to himself) is going to display it musically by playing music inspired by the many countries they’d visited – Asian and African primarily, but without ever losing its roots in blues and jazz. And then things kick right into the big band taking on one of the album’s best tunes, “Chinoiserie” a blistering, riffing complex of catchy, interlocking horn parts that features the propulsive rhythm that runs throughout the album.
The song – and the album – also prominently features Ellington’s piano playing, which is always a treat and sometimes takes a second seat to Duke conducting his band. It also features several long time Ellington regulars, including saxophonists Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, and trumpeter Cootie Williams, who tie the music back to classic Duke bands all the way to the end of the 1920’s, but also makes space for important new members of the band – notably saxophonist Harold Ashby (who joined a few years prior in 1968), and the killer rhythm section of Rufus Jones on drums (who’d been with Duke since The Far East Suite was recorded in 1966) and bassist Joe Benjamin (who became part of the band only a year earlier with New Orleans Suite in 1970). And it’s this combination of Ellington’s history, classic elegance, and (there’s no other word) genius tying together the older and younger generations to make music of the highest caliber, but also music that’s simply fun to listen to.
“Didjeridoo” follows on the heels of the lead track, showing Duke’s spare rhythmic displacement that lead him to say once upon a time that Thelonious Monk had stolen his style, and it’s followed by the best thing here – the drum-heavy “Afrique.” It’s a showcase for Jones’ huge drums, but also Duke’s interaction with them, which feels nearly like a duet though the whole orchestra is used. Horns create subtle lines that build to huge climaxes in the song, but the stars here are Jones and Ellington. “Acht O’Clock Rock” takes down the intensity a bit after the heavy drama of “Chinoiserie” and “Afrique.” “Gong” is another Rufus Jones showcase which moves from the intensity of the opening into a more delicate feature for Duke’s piano, then “Tang” highlights Duke’s chips-of-ice style with a modern jazz feeling opening that settles into the riffs and rhythm style that characterize the album. The record moves on to “True” – the most old-fashioned thing here, hearkening to a classic 50’s swing style – and closes on “Hard Way,” a bluesy closer that is the mellowest cut on the album.
It’s a great record, one of the finest full-lengths of the career of a man whose work spanned every recording technology and musical innovation of the mid-20th century. While the focus on Duke’s work tends to shine a spotlight on the work up through the War period, his later works are in need of a serious reassessment, as this great one is only one record of many that could be pointed to to make a strong case for his late-period brilliance. On Tuesday the 29th, Duke would’ve turned 115 if he was still alive. Let’s take a minute to celebrate his accomplishments and his genius with a listen to this album. And then others as well.
- Patrick Brown

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