Saturday, January 26, 2008

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins: You Can't Be Serious

On the surface, this would seem an odd outing indeed. The thought that jazz's preeminent composer and bandleader would summon his venerable, all-too loyal band just to toss off a dozen covers from a Disney movie seems laughable. Who could take this kind of thing seriously? This was, you see, 1964 and many of the jazz elite were keen to prove just how serious they were. While Miles Davis was busy on the austere, deeply cerebral E.S.P., his old cohort John Coltrane was out-squawking himself in his paean to the lord A Love Supreme. Not content to be harbingers of bop's unofficial No Dancing policy, these records almost assured the listener that they would never snap their fingers to a jazz record again.

The 1964 that often gets forgotten, however, is that of "Hello, Dolly", Louis Armstrong's surprise chart-topping single that briefly unified the community in celebration of usurping The Beatles. Sounding just as he had thirty years earlier, it sent the clear message that old school swing was still the popular choice. One of the other big jazz hits of the time was Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder", a furious ten minutes of unbridled pleasure. You could even dance to it.

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins was in its own quiet way a legitimate player in this swing revival. If one can't quite dance to all of it then at least it provokes a certain amount of swaying. "Chim Chim Cheree" is a delightful shuffle, accompanied by a delicate piano solo from Ellington, "I Love to Laugh" features some appropriately humourous back-and-forth horns and reeds and "The Life I Lead" is a welcome slice of joie-de-vivre courtesy of sax star Johnny Hodges. Fun as it is to listen to, I suspect the real joy would have been to play on these sessions: rarely has Ellington's men sounded so relaxed and in such good humour. Throughout there's very much the sense that they're treating these compositions as though Ellington himself wrote them, indicating just how first rate these tunes of Richard and Robert Sherman's are.

Ultimately, the crying shame of this work is that it merely hints at what might have been had Disney and swing conspired when they were at their respective peaks. To think of what Count Basie Plays Dumbo or Cab Calloway Plays The Reluctant Dragon or Duke Ellington Plays Fantasia would have been like makes you wonder what took everyone so long. I'm still waiting for a cerebral rendition of Wynton Marsalis Plays Song of the South.

1 comment:

Kat's Scratch said...

This review really makes me want to listen to the LP and watch Mary Poppins again so I can appreciate what Ellington contributed to the movie. For me the scene in Hello Dolly with Louis Armstrong was always the highlight. (Maybe I had a little bit of jazz in me before I met you.)