Wednesday, May 12, 2004

D.E.'s Eclipse

Last night I was reading Jay Collins's piece on recent Duke Ellington re-issues and in the middle felt the irresistable urge to hear some Ellington. So, from my meagre selection of Ellingtonia (a half-dozen albums, a 3-CD Blanton/Webster collection) I pulled out Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. This one was recorded in 1971 but seems to have been published posthumously, in 1975.

The first striking thing about Duke is how cool he was: I've never seen a picture of him, young or old, where he doesn't look the business. AEE opens with a whimsical monologue showing that, even late in life, Ellington's voice and spoken style are absolutely delicious. The album also proves that when they say that Ellington remained creative and pushed himself to the end, it's not mere hyperbole.

AEE was recorded in February 1971. Think about that: Bitches Brew was still fairly new, Weather Report might have released their first album that year; in other words, jazz-rock was still nascent. Yet, Ellington was right there, in his own way: "Didjeridoo" features a strong, driving straight-eight back-beat and on "Tang" drummer Rufus Jones is splashily insistent in a way not so far removed from what Jack DeJohnette was doing with Miles around that time. Further, Ellington understood that these kinds of beats worked well with flatter, more open landscapes: on "Didjeridoo," bass and baritone hold down vamps, while others carry the main tune and Ellington interjects pounding riffs and plays a couple of wonderfully spare and directionless short solos (actually, "interludes" would better reflect their nature). For "Tang," he hits the jackpot, hook-wise, with a series of strutting staccato two-note riffs over low trombone grumbles, peppered with tumbling, strikingly diagonal (ie. dissonant) piano. All the while maintaining blues form.

As the title implies, the "world music" influence shared by many of Ellington's late suites is also present here. "Afrique" is particularly striking, as Jones sticks almost exclusively to toms to recreate the sound of a group of percussionists off in the distance. Ellington uses this base to create an evocative and fragmented soundscape of melodic clarinet and saxophone fragments, brass panoramically fading in and out and clunky blues piano. The whole generates massive suspense with its tantilisingly spaced-out lines, but there is no melodic release, as the song's climax is in a drum solo.

The only drawback is the rather poor recording quality (or of the 1991 remastering): the piano often sounds really bad and lifeless, while the soloists tend to sound rough. As I said above, though, the opening speech alone is almost worth the low (this is an OJC) price-tag.

Weirdly, I always approach Ellington with some apprehension (it's going to sound corny, old-fashioned) and invariably come away impressed, refreshed and with a sense of wonder.