10 Duke Ellington Songs (as a Pianist) I Can’t Live Without… by Liam Noble – London Jazz News

In our growing series in which jazz musicians take a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, pianist Liam Noble writes of Duke Ellington as a pianist:

Duke Ellington. Photo source: New York Public Library

A musician once told me that he thought Ellington “didn’t really know how to play the piano”. I wonder if he’s reading this now and remembering our conversation, which ended quite abruptly afterwards. A line has been drawn in the sand: on one side, the speed freaks eager to hunt technical landmarks, on the other, the musicians who listen and react, making the spaces ring. Miles Davis, Steve Lacy, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter: all divine characters in my eyes. And this guy? Well, we haven’t played since and I just thought about him now.

Ellington was for me the gateway to jazz. Although my first loves were Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, the piano stride was in a way an unattainable and frankly miraculous level of achievement that I felt I could never achieve. Ellington, however, just to hit the piano in such a way as to make the spaces around it sing. It was my way of avoiding pirating Chopin, and it was…possible. I always thought it was possible to play like him. Now, of course, I know better. So here I wanted to highlight what he has done as a soloist as well as an accompanist, although even if I type this I can’t think of the difference.

As Joe Zawinul said of Weather Report, he’s always solo and yet he never goes solo. The accompaniments are never simple chords, the solos are never simple “lines”. It is perhaps easier to see him as a kind of sculptor, each gesture being autonomous, huge sound tones contrasting with the most fanciful pirouettes. It almost throws them away, but it’s a kind of studied looseness, each object existing in relation to what came before it…it’s not about flow, but about a kind of zigzag logic. And the rhythm, always the rhythm, the notes and the chords begin to sound like drums, always signal that something is happening. And with Ellington, it always is. His personality is so strong, yet full of juicy contradictions that give the music incredible depth.

1. “Dancers in love”

It’s pure “novelty” piano, and the almost comical sliding of the theme down is just the good side of the comedy. But there’s still serious intent beneath Ellington’s showbiz gloss — he’s unique in that regard. For me, it’s the incredible groove of the second section, a clear link to the “Stride Piano Battles” of an earlier era, that lifts it. There are many recordings of this, including a live one on 1972’s “Live At The Whitney”, but this was my first.

2. “Tonk”

It was really formative for me as a teenager, which amounted to a kind of permission to mix things up, to see “the rules” of jazz as just one strand of a multi-layered beast. This piece was simply extraordinary for its time, the ambiguity of the harmonies seeming to obscure those of Parisian neo-classicism. I feel like there was a real correlation between the two worlds… I had Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” recorded by Woody Herman on the other side of the tape!

3. “A little Dukish”

It’s a lightly textured piece for Ellington, scattered chords played softly. It’s so delicate, you can hear it tapping on 1 and 3 (heresy in the jazz world), and yet it swings so hard that it takes nothing away from the groove. Like many of Ellington’s pieces, it’s a fairly light melody, but elevated to the rank of art by what’s in it. It was recorded in 1953, before its famous resurgence in Newport in 1956: amusingly, Scott Yanow on AllAboutJazz.com said of this recording, “He could have made a viable career just being a pianist.”

Well done Duke, another great review there.

4. “The Duke’s Square”

From my first truly immersive jazz experience, this recording, featuring Louis Armstrong’s vocals, of “C Jam Blues” went straight to the heart of the mystery surrounding Ellington’s playing. He plays almost nothing, but what he plays transforms the very air around him, having its own logic, its own rules, and everything wrong with two notes. It was my first (and still my most memorable) improv lesson.

5. “Stompy Jones”

I play this piece a lot to the students. Everyone sounds great, Hodges and Harry Edison play beautifully, guitarist Les Spann has a bit more boppy spin on things, it’s a relaxed and friendly feeling. Then Ellington arrives and the dynamic goes down, it’s calm, too calm. After playing along with a few phrases from Edison’s trumpet solo, the wind suddenly picks up and there is a sudden primal urgency as Joe Jones follows the pianist through the storm. When the band arrives, there is no trace of the sunny atmosphere of the opening, it is full and scorching. It’s transformed, magical.

6. “Money Jungle”

My favorite piano trio track from my favorite piano trio album. Mingus and Max Roach seem to be tugging at each other like they’re locked in an arm wrestle, while Ellington, stuck in the middle, seems somehow more modern than either of them. It’s a glorious, angry, uplifting mess. There is no melody. The sound of Max Roach’s cymbal accumulating there is one of the greatest things ever recorded.

7. “Loneliness”

It’s easy to forget that tunes like this can have such deep emotion. Ellington plays his head alone, then launches into a kind of long coda: like Bud Powell, he has an incredible sense of drama, as if he felt the contrasts of music more deeply than ordinary mortals… and when the group between, his solo keeps things simple, repetitive and bizarre. Like Monk, he has an emotion of his own, a kind of angular romanticism.

8. “The Night Shepherd (Blues for Joan Miro)”

Seeing Ellington live on screen was a big eye-opener for me, his way of sitting, his attitude towards the instrument. He moves all the time, not too conspicuous and not too much, but his body guides the choices he makes. The expression is physical, not cerebral, and whatever flow it has, it comes from this kind of repressed dance. Sam Woodyard has no cymbals – the irresistible thrust locks in with John Lamb’s bass with the lightest of brush strokes.

9. “Big Nick”

This album was my introduction to John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, and there’s a kind of fearless surge of energy here as they feed off each other. Ellington, however, never seems like a fish out of water, always sticks to his guns. There is a stark contrast between him and the saxophonist, both look completely alike and illustrate how old and new traditions can coexist, producing a third form of higher energy in their combination.

10. “Lotus Flower”

This recording is almost unbearably poignant, with Ellington playing as the band lines up around him. Billy Strayhorn, his inseparable musical partner, had recently passed away, and Ellington plays this ballad with a kind of angry urgency amid tenderness. Maybe he didn’t even know the tapes were rolling, and certainly the band seems oblivious. It’s almost as if we don’t have to witness this moment of private mourning, but it’s somehow necessary that we do.

LINK: Liam Noble’s blog

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