Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Duke Jams

At the Côte D’Azur with Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Miró/Last Jam Sesson
Duke Ellington
Norman Granz Presents/Eagle Eye Media

Edward Kennedy Ellington was known as the Duke long before he led his famous band. Some people just know how to live and he was one of them. Jazz producer and impresario Norman Granz was another, so when they collaborated on a French Riviera concert film, good things were likely to happen. Granz later filmed an all-star quartet session that produced the Big Four album shortly before Ellington’s death. Collected together on a two DVD set with an unwieldy title, the Côte D’Azur and Last Jam Session films capture the inspiration of an American giant.

Of the two, the French sessions are probably the strongest, but both are historically significant. The Duke sets the scene with a recorded introduction extolling the virtues of the bikinis and gambling of the Riviera, as well as the modern art of the Maeght Foundation. We see Ellington tour the museum grounds with Joan Miró like two old friends. With bassist John Lamb and drummer Sam Woodyard, Ellington gives an intimate concert for Miró. Granz cleverly intersperses shots of the institute’s sculpture including that of Giacometti and Miró with that of Ellington’s trio in performance. “Kinda Dukish” reminds us of Ellington’s swinging attack on the piano, often overshadowed by his remarkable talent as a composer and bandleader. We also hear an impromptu creation “The Shepherd” and see it adapted for the full band at a later rehearsal.

The Antibes-Juan Les Pins concert is a nice mix of Ellingtonian classics like “Creole Love Call” and “The Mooche” as well as newer compositions like the majestic “Such Sweet Thunder.” Trains were a recurring motif in Ellington’s songs and “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues” was a new example that ought to be more of a standard (it appears only Scott Hamilton has recorded it since).

The climax of the concert comes with Ella Fitzgerald’s entrance. She had just heard of her sister’s death earlier that day, but swings “Satin Doll” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” hard. Her lovely rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” obviously takes on added meaning.

The Big Four session is captured on the second disk, featuring Ellington in an all-star quartet, with only one previous bandmember, drummer Louis Bellson, on hand. Together with Ray Brown (Ella Fitzgerald’s former bassist and husband) and Joe Pass on guitar, they play some great music and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Though recording in the studio, it has a late night jam session feeling—hence the title Duke: the Last Jam Session. It is fun, with some wonderful music, but a tad ragged at times (particularly early in the session), befitting the jam session moniker. The French sessions would be a better introduction for Ellington neophytes, whereas, established fans will enjoy watching the Duke talk and joke between takes as they listen to playbacks.

Ellington was a true American original and these sessions capture him still at the height of his powers. Both the creative longevity and prolificacy of the man are staggering. Associating Ellington with Miró is altogether fitting and proper, with Granz presenting the Duke in an elegant and respectful context. It is great to have this footage available.