Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Ellingtonian: Duke in absentia

There is a persistent notion floating around - not necessarily false, mind you - that Duke Ellington's charges could never cut it on their own. Clive James notes that the very success of the marvellous Blanton-Webster period proved it's undoing: everyone became a star and they were all keen to show what they could do without the taskmaster present. While James doesn't go into it, I have to believe that Ben Webster's career path proved to be the kernel that triggered everyone else to follow suit: having worked alongside him - and in direct competition with him at the exact same time - did this light a fire under, say, Johnny Hodges, promting his departure from the Orchestra in 1951? A master manipulator, Ellington did little to difuse the friction amongst members of his Orchestra; the blow-back may have prompted everyone to emulate the success of their most renowned compatriot.

Cat Anderson wasn't a part of the early-forties peak, having joined Ellington in 1944 (possibly as a permanent replacement for Cootie Williams, who had fled to form his own orchestra, but I don't have sufficient resources at my disposal to say one way or another), but he still would have been privy to plenty of friction and ego. Much like later addition Paul Gonsalves, while he did clearly have the ambition to go off on his own, this was done much more sporadically and if this compilation is anything to go by he was out to prove just how intrinsic Duke was to his own sound.

But this is slightly less aparent earlier on. Chronologically speaking (for it doesn't come in until the second half of the disc), the first Paris session in 1958 takes a reasonable stab at 'Concerto for Cootie' before unleashing some steller solos on 'Black and Tan Fantasy' - about as individual and free of his boss as it gets. Anderson's patented trumpet plunger sound is present but not as often as one might expect. Russell Procope and Butter Jackson certainly keep pace with Anderson as well. The remainder - 'Blues for Laurence', an original, and versions of 'Ain't Misbehavin' and 'You're the Cream in My Coffee' - sound remarkably as if they were all Ellington arrangements in secret - a testament to Anderson's underrated abilities in this regard.he did have a pretty gifted mentor to show him the ropes.

The centrepiece of the collection, however, is the 1964 session and the people from the French division of EMI who put together the Americans Swinging in Paris series are right to place it first. With Gonsalves in tow but fewer members of the Orchestra over-all, Anderson plays well over some excellent blues (which is also a helpful reminder of just how soaked in the blues Ellington always was) by some of the finest sessioners baseed in France. 'C Jam Blues', for one, hasn't sounded better since the Blanton-Webster recording, the shuffling piano manuevers of US exile in Paris Joe Turner providing the perfect accompaniment to some superb soloing from Anderson, Gonsalves, Procope and Buster Cooper. On opener 'A "Chat" with Cat', we're treated to Gonsalves expertly mimicking Webster's signature heavy breathing tenor sax style and only when everyone comes together at the end to attempt to play over each other does one get the feeling that this may not meet the standards of Ellington.

Not to be confused with Ellingtonia*, another stab at honouring his boss, The Ellingtonian is in effect a Duke Ellington album with an overabundance of Cat Anderson solos. Making a virtue out of being trapped in an inescapable shadow, Anderson does an admirable job in the leader's chair, even if he's effectively acting as a proxy. Ellington may not have been there but he's very much present.

* Cheers for adding to the confusion AllMusic.

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