Saturday, June 19, 2010

Michael Fremer Album Review

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges (reissue)
Side by Side

Verve/Speakers Corner MGVS-6109 180g LP

Produced by: Norman Granz
Engineered by: N/A
Mixed by: N/A
Mastered by: maarten de Boer at UMG Berliner

Review by: Michael Fremer

These loose, swinging 50+ year old sessions recorded in the summer of 1958 and winter of 1959 and sounding incredibly life-like tonally, offer Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on piano fronting small combos of legendary horn players, some not normally associated with Ellington, Joe Jones on drums and a few added musicians to spice up the mix.

By the end of the ‘50s big band music had pretty much had its day—at least as far as mainstream popularity went— so perhaps Ellington and producer Norman Granz figured these small combo sessions would add some modernity, though Ellington had recorded small group sessions back in the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the excitement sweeping modern jazz at the time, no matter how you arranged these predictable swing-based tunes ( predictable even then and way more so now) , there was no way to breathe new life into the proceedings. Perhaps Duke saw the handwriting on the wall, naming the set’s final tune “You Need to Rock.”

This music was starting to sound dated even in 1959. Reading Nat Hentoff’s valiant liner notes, you find one of the great annotators searching for something, anything exciting to say about these sessions (he even lets on near the end that writing notes is “…not always an unalloyed delight…”). Hentoff essentially gives up and instead goes for a useful (particularly now) play-by-play type rundown that spotlights the great musicianship and the small gestures that make this set more than worthwhile listening despite the well-worn grooves.

Hearing beyond the predictable changes and familiar riffs is essential to get to the core of what truly is worthwhile here, which is an opportunity to hear guys like Hodges, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and others, (plus of course Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) get a chance to stretch out in ways not possible in a big band context.

Though the musical set ups often bordered on trite even then, many rewarding musical moments are contained therein nonetheless. Given the players, how could it be otherwise? Just listen to the solos by Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Lawrence Brown (trombone) on “Let’s Fall in Love” and you’ll know that while the musical style may have been passed its prime, they players still had the goods.

Modern jazz at the time had gotten cerebral. This was about feeling good.

The early stereo recording is spatially odd, putting most of the action hard left/hard right, with just the drums for the most part stretched out in a non-box like space bathed in some reverb. So forget about seeing a realistic soundstage and concentrate on the warm, natural timbres of the instruments themselves and the musical pleasures will flow.

A comparison between this and Classic Records’ long out of print edition mastered by Bernie Grundman demonstrated that the two versions are similar but this one sounds somewhat less spacious and immediate. I’d say it was cut from a copy of the master, while Classic’s was cut from the master. No matter though, this one sounds very good and can actually be purchased.

So yes, this is music from a time long gone, but given the craziness of the world today, musically and otherwise, this offers a swinging, respite packed with great solo work from an assemblage of jazz giants. The music may not be in style today but it’s not out of style either and never will be.

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

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