Duke Ellington in 1971. Photo: Getty Images
July 7, 2015 5:19 p.m. ET
During the final 12 years of his life, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was notably eclectic in his musical endeavors, but a new recording “Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: The Conny Plank Session” (Grönland, July 10 release) shows the maestro working an even broader range of musical territory.
The recording feature six tracks, four previously unreleased, from a 1970 session in Cologne featuring the Ellington Orchestra with Plank at the helm. Plank (1940-1987) was an up-and-coming producer at that time, but his work with a wide variety of performers including Kraftwerk, Brian Eno,Devo, Killing Joke, Neu!, A Flock of Seagulls and Eurythmics made him a pioneer of both synthesizer-based rock as well as ambient music. Yet, he too was eclectic in his musical pursuits. In 1969, he produced “The Living Music” (Atavistic), by the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and “Nipples” (Calig) by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann; they are seminal recordings in the European free jazz canon.
Connie Plank in his studio in 1982. Photo: David Corio/Getty Images
The tapes were discovered by representatives of the label who were perusing the Plank estate. Stories vary about how the session came about and even the date of the recording. Ellingtonia, the online discography of Duke’s work, cites July 9, 1970, but the tapes say April 27 of that year. One version of the story is that the Ellington band was looking for a place to rehearse and Plank volunteered his studio in exchange for recording the proceedings. The other version is that Ellington hired Plank to make the recordings. Either way, great music was made by these men with contrasting specialties.
The recording features only two tracks but unlike vintage jazz reissues where alternate takes offer only subtle tweaks on the original, these pieces show Ellington making substantial revisions to each performance. The 29 minute program begins with three takes of “Alerado,” a piece by Wild Bill Davis. The first rendition is a smooth up-tempo number highlighted by vibrant solos by a flutist and trumpeter (both uncredited) and the composer. The second take is slower, almost a walking tempo, and the solos are pithier. The third version of the tune is slower still, with harder rhythmic accents and a different mood; the piece is more somber and it features an uncredited saxophone solo and a longer more complex solo by the composer.
“Afrique,” the other piece, is indicative of Ellington’s restless creativity. The piece begins with an array of horns accenting a percolating rhythm by an uncredited drummer. With impressive solo work by Davis and peppery work by the horns, the piece sounds like the Ellington classic “Daybreak Express” given a modernist approach. The second take features a duet between a reserved, probing tenor saxophonist and Ellington, who takes an arch, minimalist approach to the song. The third rendition features vocalese, big organ swells from Davis, and an abstract tenor saxophone solo. According to Ellingtonia, saxophonists Paul Gonsalves and Harold Ashby are on the date, but the solos aren’t credited. There seems to be little connection between these recordings and the synth pop that Plank produced in the ’80s, but in the live, you-are-in-the-studio sound of these tracks with Duke it is easy to see the influence that these sessions had on Plank’s work with Mr. Eno.
The brevity of this album notwithstanding, it makes a solid argument for reevaluating the late phase of Ellington’s work. On his live recordings of this period, he is the stereotypical aging master cranking out the hits, but his studio work tells a substantially different story. These six tracks are consistent with the work of a man who invited two modern jazz masters, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, to record in a trio that released “Money Jungle” (United Artists) in 1962. He also probed the connections between jazz and American vernacular music in his “New Orleans Suite” (Atlantic, 1970), and his three Sacred Concerts from 1965, 1968 and 1973. In addition, recordings like “The Far East Suite” (Bluebird, 1967) and “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” (Fantasy, 1971) reveal Ellington’s pioneering efforts to blend jazz and international sounds. Finally, the latter recording also displays an Ellingtonian take on rock.
During the final years of his life, jazz was quickly changing, but a close look at Ellington’s studio work shows that he was staying ahead of the times.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.