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

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Such Sweet Thunder

Essential Jazz Classics EJC 55416




1. Such Sweet Thunder
2. Sonnet For Caesar
3. Sonnet To Hank Cinq
4. Lady Mac
5. Sonnet In Search Of A Moor
6. The Telecasters
7. Up And Down, Up And Down (I Will Lead Them Up And Down)
8. Sonnet For Sister Kate
9. The Star Crossed Lovers

10. Madness In Great Ones
11. Half The Fun

12. Circle Of Fourths

13. Suburban Beauty

14. A Flat Minor

15. Café Au Lait
16. A Tone Parallel To Harlem (The Harlem Suite)

17. The Controversial Suite Part 1 (Before My Time)
18 The Controversial Suite Part 2 (Later)
Duke Ellington - Piano
Billy Strayhorn - Piano (tracks 16-18)
Clark Terry, Willie Cook - Trumpets
Ray Nance - Trumpet, violin, vocal
Cat Anderson - Trumpet (tracks 1-15)
Francis Williams - Trumpet (track 16)
Harold "Shorty" Baker - Trumpet (tracks 17, 18)
Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman - Trombones
John Sanders - Trombone (tracks 1-15)
Juan Tizol - Trombone (tracks 16-18)
Jimmy Hamilton - Clarinet, tenor sax
Russell Procope - Alto sax, clarinet
Johnny Hodges - Alto sax (tracks 1-15)
Willie Smith - Alto sax (tracks 16-18)
Paul Gonsalves - Tenor sax (tracks 16-18)
Harry Carney - Baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet
Jimmy Woode - Bass (tracks 1-15)
Wendell Marshall - Bass (tracks 16-18)
Sam Woodyard - Drums (tracks 1-15)
Louie Bellson - Drums (tracks 16-18)



Such Sweet Thunder is one of the many masterpieces composed by Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn. Recorded between August 1956 and May 1957, it was commissioned for the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. The work's title was taken from lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder". The mention of discords is apt, since some parts of the suite show that the composers were extremely adventurous in the sounds they created, including the discords which so aptly convey the agony behind Madness in Great Ones.

One of the strengths of Duke's orchestra has always been his choice of musicians with very individual voices. Such Sweet Thunder employs this to great advantage: using the poignant alto sax of Johnny Hodges to reflect the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet in The Star-Crossed Lovers, and the puckish mischief of Clark Terry to depict Puck's antics in Up and Down, Up and Down, with three pairs of instruments representing the three sets of warring lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Another clever touch occurs in the four pieces entitled "Sonnets", which apparently mirror the ten-syllable, fourteen line structure of the sonnet (I haven't counted them all, but it seems probable).

The opening title-track is a sturdy piece, driven along by the offbeat clicks supplied by drummer Sam Woodyard. On a recent Jazz Library programme on BBC Radio 3, Clark Terry assigned the excitement of that famous Paul Gonsalves solo at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival down to Woodyard's driving drumming, and Sam has always seemed to me the ideal percussionist for the Ellington band of this period.

Speaking of Lady Mac (i.e. Lady Macbeth), Duke says: "We suspect there was a little ragtime in her soul", so this track is a jaunty jazz waltz which ends with an ominous climax suggesting that the lady had more than ragtime in her soul. The Telecasters puts four evil, talkative characters together: the Three Witches from Macbeth and Iago from Othello, represented by three trombones and the baritone sax of Harry Carney. Half the Fun portrays Cleopatra with exotic rhythm and the alluring presence of Johnny Hodges.

The original album ended with Circle of Fourths, in which Paul Gonsalves works his way through every key via the interval of a fourth, reflecting Shakespeare's fourfold genres: comedy, tragedy, history and the sonnets. This new CD includes three more items (tracks 13 to 15), which the sleeve says were originally intended for inclusion in the suite (although W. E. Timmer's Ellingtonia discography seems to disagree). It is difficult to connect these to any of Shakespeare's plays but A Flat Minor contains some very palatable alto from Johnny Hodges and Café au Lait has some tasty voicings for the saxophones.

To illustrate the fact that Ellington could also compose longer works, this CD adds on A Tone Parallel to Harlem (The Harlem Suite) - another Ducal masterpiece: a vivid, loving profile of Harlem, premiered and recorded in 1951. It lasts nearly 14 minutes and passes through numerous stages and moods, portraying various aspects of the area. I would rather hear the Ellington ensemble performing this piece rather than some of the versions which try to give it a "classical" sheen (for instance, see my review earlier this year of the version by the American Composers Orchestra). It is a brilliant example of Duke's versatility and the huge range of his composing and orchestrating talents.

The last two tracks on the CD - also recorded in 1951, comprise the Controversial Suite. I am so old that I have the original recording of this on an EP (remember those?). To be pedantic, my EP lists Hilton Jefferson on alto sax, replacing Willie Smith. The first part of this suite is a slightly tongue-in-cheek pastiche of classic jazz (jokingly sub-titled "Before My Time"). Someone (Russell Procope?) plays a wild soprano sax and this section ends with a rave-up in Tiger Rag mode. Part two ("Later") is deliberately more disjointed, perhaps reflecting the variety or dislocation of "modern" jazz (one commentator compares it to Stan Kenton). It is good to have this rare piece available on CD - probably for the first time. But then the whole album is a treasury of delights - proving that, however good Ellington's work was in the early 1940s, its quality was maintained (and, dare I say it, developed) as he got older. Highly recommended.

Tony Augarde





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