The Three Concerts – Part II

Togo Brava Suite

There are two CDs by this title. One is a studio session of never released tracks of the sort that Duke Ellington recorded when he wanted to hear how certain pieces in development sounded. It features a seven movement Togo Brava Suite. Don’t get this recording. Instead, hunt for the largely out-of-print CD of the same name. This CD features a concert recording the Duke Ellington Orchestra in England in 1971.

Like The 70th Birthday Concert recording, the spirit of the live performance is well captured by Duke’s on stage announcements, cheers, and grunts, as well as the audience reactions. By this time, however, more musicians have departed. Johnny Hodges died in 1970. Trumpeter Cat Anderson and trombonist Lawrence Brown both retired. On reeds, in addition to Norris Turney and Harold Ashby, veterans of Birthday Concert, there is also Geezil Minerve on alto sax. And the Piano Player took center stage more and more. The various voices in the band shaped the type of music Ellington wrote – like Mozart, he wrote to the strengths of the musicians he worked with. Such alterations in the sound kept the Ellington Orchestra evolving, though always enticing.

A few older pieces form part of the set, like “C-Jam Blues,” which starts the album, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “In a Mellotone.”  Most of the music, though, is more contemporary, including the titular suite.

Longtime Ellington biographer Stanley Dance wrote in his liner notes that Duke Ellington was one of four composers honored on stamps issued by the Republic of Togo in 1967. The other three were Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. Duke had not visited Togo during his Africa tour of 1966, but he felt so moved by the acknowledgement that he wrote out a suite in Togo’s honor. He colored the music not with a personal visit, but based upon photos and descriptions.

“Soul Soothing Beach” is the first movement, a tone poem invoking, in Duke’s words, “100 miles of beautiful silver sand beach with a southern exposure, facing the equator on the western bulge of Africa.” A playfully skipping piano introduces us to this picturesque land, followed by dulcet tones from the reed section. Norris Turney, the Orchestra’s only flute soloist, provides more tranquil color. The orchestration is reminiscent of the Far East Suite and the Latin American Suite, the music of sophisticated jet setters exploring and appreciating new lands.

For the second movement, “Naturellement,” Duke announces, “Now, we go into the jungle.” As Stanley Dance notes, this is not the jungle of Ellington past, with plunger mutes on trumpet and trombone providing sass to the titillation of the Cotton Club’s white patrons. If the piece possesses any connection to the Ellington musical past, it would be with 1940’s “Ko Ko,” a tune that played off the “jungle” theme, but advanced beyond it. Like “Ko Ko,” “Naturellement” relies on strong rhythms and an aggressive brass section. Drummer Rufus “Speedy” Jones keeps the piece driving while Harry Carney keeps it well grounded on his baritone sax. I particularly like the waltz-time interlude in one of the final sections. Overall, the movement portrays serious pride and sense of purpose from a strictly African point of view, unconcerned with the fetishistic notions of Cotton Club patrons.

The third movement, “Amour, Amour,” is my favorite. To my ears, it sounds like a melancholy counterpoint to Far East Suite’s “Mount Harissa.” Here, our aged master and world traveler seems more tenuous, more timorous. Awe and wonder from “Harissa” remain, to some extent, but are accompanied by uneasy glances over the shoulder. If “Mount Harissa” is a party celebrating a long career capped off by new travels to exotic lands, “Amour, Amour” is a reflection, wondering if the party has gone on too long, and fears about how much longer can it continue.  The notes communicate the timorous nature of love, particularly in its infancy. But they also communicate a longing of those no longer present.

“Right On Togo” is the final movement, a rousing piece that echoes some of the moods touched on by the second and third movements, but ultimately ends on a happy note.

Another highlight of this album for me is the next track, “Happy Reunion.” Duke original wrote this piece for Paul Gonsalves to perform at the Orchestra’s second trip to Newport in 1958, two years after his triumphant first.  In 1956, Paul Gonsalves famously caused a near riot with his legendary 27-chorus wailing interval during the bridge between “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue.” “Happy Reunion” was written to demonstrate Paul’s tender side. Though a few animated shouts remain, the piece largely features gentle chatting and sigh-filled pauses. It’s the sound of old friends coming together one more time, picking up a conversation started decades before.

Dedications appear in this collection, another reflection that time has passed. Norris Turney wrote “Checkered Hat” in honor of Johnny Hodges. He does a very good job of echoing Johnny’s unique and personal playing style. Duke also performs Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” in honor of his late writing partner. Finally, Duke also plays “Melancholia” in solo piano, a piece that could be thought of as a dedication Ellington made to himself.

A range of emotions spans this album. “Addi” bears a similar swagger to “Naturellement” and gives a fine introduction to newcomer Geezil Minerve on alto sax. “La Plus Belle Africaine” dates back to the mid 60s, in anticipation of the Orchestra’s first visit to Africa. Strong rhythms also dominate this piece, as well as a serious, if sometimes playful, sense of purpose provided by Russell Procope on clarinet and Harry Carney on baritone sax. The swagger aside, though, the overall theme of the album is one of reflection and melancholy.

Scott Yanow in All Music Guide gave this recording two starts out of five. Ridiculous. I give it four, perhaps four and a half stars for fascinating music and the range of emotions presented.

Next time, Duke Ellington’s final recording, The Eastbourne Performance.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.

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