This is the first in an occasional series of posts about some of my favorite albums, and chances are that you have not heard these albums before, as they are in a bit of a niche (mostly Jazz) that obviously isn’t the most popular these days; at least if you weren’t involved in the art when you were in school. 😉
The first album that I’m going to highlight is one of the most famous live albums in all of jazz – Ellington At Newport, recorded in July of 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival and released shortly after, it revitalized the fledgling career of Duke’s band, one of the last big bands that were still touring at the time.
The version of the album that I own (the 1999 re-release after discovering a “lost” tape of this concert) starts off with one of the best renditions of the national anthem out there. Coming in at a scant 1:14, it should serve as a lesson to anyone performing the song that you can do it without a lot of fanfare and make it sound amazing. The secret is that you just can’t have someone signing the words to the song since that is the cause of the time loss.
After some introductions and a few more songs, the band leaves the stage and Father Norman O’Connor discusses the goings-on at the festival, mentioning one Quincy Jones who would become famous a few years later as a composer.
What had happened was that half of the band were off on their own, so when they were all found once again, they retook the stage and performed what is Duke’s signature tune – Take the A-Train. With the concert finally back in full swing, they then get into the meat of their performance – the three part piece especially written for the festival. This is also where you start to see massive differences between the live album and the “studio” album.
Since I’ve heard this album too many times to count, I know the specific markers in some of the songs that will tell you if it is the live version or the recorded version. For example, in the first segment of the performance, Festival Junction, there is a point in the live version where (this is about 1:30 into the track) you hear grunting in the background. The studio version removed this grunting, which takes away a bit of the character.
The part that I really dislike about the studio version is that, since solos are what they are – meant to be different every time – the solo at the end of the production track just doesn’t have the same feeling as the solo that was done live (the production version’s solo is, for the lack of a better term, bland).
Taking center stage for this album, though, is the 14-minute rendition of Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue, with a long solo in the middle by Paul Gonsalves, which leads to pandemonium in the crowd. It starts out pretty serenely, but as the track progresses, the momentum builds as you experience the solo going on and hear the background noise of the audience just build and build.
At this point, the crowd were totally out of control, so Duke goes straight for another song, I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good), featuring Johnny Hodges (of whom is said, “If you’ve heard of the saxophone, you’ve heard of Johnny Hodges”). If it wasn’t for discovering the “lost” tape of this concert, one of the best-sounding mistakes would likely have been lost forever.
In the opening of the tune, Hodges (pardon the technical term here) “fracked” a note as he started to play. He did it twice and then got it right on the third try, yet the studio version cleans all that up in the name of a good sounding album. In my opinion, if there was ever a time when you could get away with a mistake, this certainly was it.
After a couple of more tunes, the album then has a track simply titled “Riot Prevention.” How can anyone resist an album that has a track with that title? It starts with someone yelling “That’s it!”, but Duke persuades this person to let him just say good night.
As it so happens, saying good night means announcing that there’s a heavy request for drummer Sam Woodyard and Skin Deep – which lasts for almost 10 minutes. They finally do say good night to a crazy crowd who are disappointed to see them go, but I suspect that if they did go on, you’d have heard stories about arrests.
Like I mentioned, the album then has the rerecorded portions of the concert, mostly as they were released in 1956, including the noticeably fake crowd noises interspersed into the comments by Father O’Connor and Duke; you also hear the crowd inserted into the songs, mostly during solos. While there are a few people who say that the studio version is the better version for a variety of reasons – less mistakes, I’ve always preferred the live version of the songs, and will do so for as long as I listen to it.
If you’re interested in checking out the album, you can find it on Amazon, where they do have clips of each of the songs available for you to listen to. This is one of the albums that I think anyone who is studying jazz should definitely listen to over and over again. I have to admit that I’d not listened to it for a while, but have been listening to it during my walks lately and it is a truly remarkable work that everyone should listen to at least once.
Are there any albums that you can think of which would be considered essential listening for everyone?