Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City ~ The New Yorker

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Since the nineteen-sixties, there have not been jazz musicians as artistically significant and generally popular as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, or Bill Evans. Today, jazz music is a miscellaneous collection of wide-ranging and disputed genres that stands to the side of American culture. How did the train go off the tracks? A listen to Ellington and Evans both playing an Ellington standard, “In a Sentimental Mood,” on the same hot Thursday night in New York City—August 17, 1967—offers a few clues. Here is Ellington’s version at the Rainbow Grill, with the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, along with John Lamb on bass and Steve Little on drums. And here is Evans’s version at the Village Vanguard, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

Ellington, in the twilight of his career, had several long residencies at the Rainbow Grill, a restaurant and ballroom on the sixty-fifth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Ellington would work on new music during the day (with the passing of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, in May, 1967, Ellington’s final decade would see a much higher percentage of original music solely from his pen) and, in the evening, would play for dinner, dancing, and listening. This functional gig was a different experience than the glamorous concert tours that the full band made during the year. Yet each night at the Rainbow Grill high society, music fans, and hangers-on came together to see Ellington. You never knew who would drop by: Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, a Rockefeller.

For the summer of 1967, Ellington brought in an octet with the legendary veteran Ellingtonians Cat Anderson, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown, and Harry Carney, accompanied by a young, mainstream rhythm section. They played the hits and a few minor new pieces. (A bootleg of a complete set came out recently on the Gambit label—an imprint for collectors who don’t mind potential illegalities). Everything is enjoyable, but the highlight is the Gonsalves quartet and “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Ellington packs a whole history of composition into only two and a half choruses. The first chorus is piano in D minor/F major, the “old style,” fairly close to the first 1935 recording. After the “old-style” chorus, Duke modulates to Bb minor/Db major for Gonsalves’s entrance, the same key used for the “new-style” version of “In a Sentimental Mood” tracked with John Coltrane, in 1962. Gonsalves’s greatest fame was authoring twenty-six choruses of shouting blues on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1956, a moment that many credit with revitalizing Ellington’s career. However, Gonsalves was also one of the greatest ballad players, and his silky, furry, almost murky legato here is pure delight.

Gonsalves’s mastery is only to be expected, but the sixty-eight-year-old Ellington is still full of surprises. Playing with Coltrane, Ellington’s “new-style” arrangement had a mournful raindrop piano part that was dramatic and distinctive. At the Rainbow Grill, Ellington doesn’t play many of the raindrops but goes all out in rhapsodic style: heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs. It would be hard to find ballad accompaniment this busy anywhere else.

Downtown, the vastly influential keyboard artist Bill Evans was enjoying another run at the Village Vanguard. He was a regular at the club, with his 1961 LP “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” well on its way to canonization. When he was in residence, Evans would put a table from the front by the back stairs, come early, and drink coffee while reading the racing news.

In 1967, you could still get a hamburger or a turkey club sandwich at the Vanguard, but there certainly was no dancing. It was a nice, quiet audience for Evans that night. This recording of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which was released on the Verve double LP “California, Here I Come,” has less audience noise than “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.”

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