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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf, Glyn Pursglove

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A Drum is a Woman

Jazz Track JZ 933



1. A Drum Is a Woman
2. Rhythm Pum Te Dum
3. What Else Can You Do With a Drum?
4. New Orleans
5. Hey, Buddy Bolden
6. Carribee Joe
7. Congo Square
8. A Drum Is a Woman (Part 2)
9. You Better Know It
10. Madam Zajj
11. Ballet of the Flying Saucers
12. Zajj's Dream
13. Rhumbop
14. Carribee Joe (Part 2)
15. Finale
16, Pomegranate
Duke Ellington - Piano, narrator
Clark Terry, Willie Cook, Cat Anderson - Trumpets
Ray Nance - Trumpet, violin, vocal
Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, John Sanders - Trombones
Jimmy Hamilton - Clarinet, tenor sax
Russell Procope - Alto sax, clarinet
Johnny Hodges, Rick Henderson - Alto saxes
Paul Gonsalves - Tenor sax
Harry Carney - Baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet
Betty Glamann - Harp
Jimmy Woode - Bass
Sam Woodyard, Terry Snyder - Drums
Candido Camero - Bongoes
Margaret Tynes, Joya Sherrill, Ozzie Bailey - Vocals

Duke Ellington was always an enigma - a very private perrson who revealed little of himself to anyone. And A Drum is a Woman is one of his most enigmatic works: theoretically an account of the development of jazz but actually a sprawling, often eccentric, product of Ellington's stream of consciousness, although it was actually composed by Ellington with his faithful collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

Through music, vocals and narration, it tells the story of Madam Zajj and her relationship with a mysterious man called Carribee Joe. Ellington called it "a tone parallel to the history of jazz". It was originally recorded in 1956 for a record album but was then presented as a television special in May 1957 on the US Steel Hour. The TV version (an early experiment with colour) included dances featuring Carmen de Lavallade. It uses a variety of musical styles: New Orleans jazz, calypso, Ellingtonian swing, bebop, etc. - and it takes the listener from Africa to the Caribbean via Congo Square and 52nd Street to the moon!

If this sounds strange, it is. Duke's narration is often puzzling and may be marred for modern listeners by the old-fashioned attitude towards women in the title-track ("It isn't civilised to beat women, No matter what they do or say, But will somebody tell me What else can you do with a drum?"). Despite being a confirmed devotee of Ellington's music, I find it hard to regard this as one of his major works. It's bitty incomprehensibility militates against its success, and the mysterious words might have been better replaced by more music from the wonderful band. At times, Ellington's words sound more like a private meditation than a narration (Duke's son, Mercer, says that "Madam Zajj" became a composite nickname for many of the women in Duke's later life).

There are, of course, some moments of superb Ducal music, such as Clark Terry and Ray Nance's evocation of Buddy Bolden in track 5, and some glorious Johnny Hodges saxophone on track 8, backed by a range of remarkably varied chords. The use of voices anticipates some of Ellington's later work in his Sacred Concerts, while the emphasis on percussion prefigures 1959's Malletoba Spank.

The album has a bonus track called Pomegranate, which was included in the TV broadcast accompanying a dance but omitted from some versions of the album. Ellingtonian completists will want this CD in their collection, as it marks a stage in Duke's development, but it is overshadowed by Such Sweet Thunder which followed it closely (see my review elsewhere on this website).

Tony Augarde


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