The Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra celebrates Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington is a little like J.S. Bach or Picasso or Shakespeare. He looms very largely over the sphere of creativity that he worked in. You could say that he was the most significant jazz composer and you wouldn’t have a lot of people rushing up to quibble with you. You could also say he was the most significant composer of the 20th century and many would nod in agreement.
Part of what makes Ellington such an imposing figure is that he lived for a fairly long time (1899-1974), and he was leading a big band and writing significant music for over a half-century. And that period happened to overlap with some dramatic changes in both recording technology and popular styles. Ellington worked during the eras of hot jazz, swing, be-bop, modal, hard bop, and what you might call the post-John Coltrane era. Ellington recorded sessions with Coltrane, and he did a trio album with Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Miles Davis once said that one day a year every musician should put their instrument down and thank Duke Ellington.
When the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra pays tribute to Duke Ellington on June 9 at the Carolina Theatre’s Crown in Greensboro, the big band will perform music from every decade that Ellington was actively composing — the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. There will be two performances of the program, Rockin’ in Rhythm, Celebrating the Music of Duke Ellington, with a 3 p.m. matinee and a 7 p.m show.
This year marked the 120th anniversary of Ellington’s birth, and there have been a string of commemorations and tributes in his honor. I spoke by phone with Chad Eby, the artistic director of the PTJO, about the genius of Ellington and this concert last week. This concert marks five years of concerts in the Triad for the PTJO, and Eby and his bandmates hope it’s a fitting tribute to the warm audience reception they’ve received in the area over that time.
“Ellington has helped shape the parameters for so much of what I’ve done in my writing and arranging,” said Eby, who lives in Greensboro and, in addition to performing, composing, arranging and recording, also teaches in the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNCG, directing the jazz ensemble there, teaching history and giving lessons.
Setting aside Ellington’s compositions, he had astounding skills as an orchestrator. He paired instruments unexpectedly, used muted brass in surprising ways, and sometimes had instrumentalists play in counterintuitive registers for their particular horn. Ellington created dynamic and jarring contrasts, and he routinely made use of almost drone-like coloristic long sustains. He was a master of mood and atmosphere. The call-and-response interplay between different sections of the orchestra created a vibrant sense of motion, tension and depth in the music.
And then there’s Ellington’s remarkable catalog of compositions. For every classic, like “Mood Indigo” or “Prelude to a Kiss” or “Come Sunday” or “Sophisticated Lady” or “Cottontail” or “Ko-Ko” or “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” there are lesser-known gems like the mind-boggling “Echoes of Harlem,” or “Dancers in Love,” or entire long-form suites like “The River,” some of which didn’t even get released until after his death.
Part of Ellington story is that he “played” his orchestra like it was an instrument. And that’s certainly true — the Ellington orchestra at different times included some of the giants of jazz on each of their respective instruments: Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Ben Webster on tenor, Jimmy Blanton on bass, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Cootie Williams on trumpet, etc. Ellington was inspired by the artists in his band, sometimes taking a riff that he heard them play during a solo or a warm-up, and developing those snippets out into masterpieces. And Ellington wrote compositions to showcase the individual players in his orchestra. (Ellington also famously collaborated with another genius of jazz composition and orchestration, Billy Strayhorn, the two fed off of each other.)
“Obviously, Duke wrote all of those pieces for specific people, and obviously we are not those specific people,” Eby said.
So, while no one is going to be trying to imitate Johnny Hodges, there will be pieces that showcase the individual soloists of the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra in the same way that Ellington featured his band.
Those solos and extended instrumental sections flow out of some highly inventive compositions, with melodies that take the logic of the blues, with its expressive bends and flatted thirds, fifths and sevenths, and extend the possibilities into a highly chromatic, lush territory.
The harmonies that Ellington wove through his compositions were equally warm, energetic and radiant.
“With Duke, the melody always fed the harmonic sophistication underneath,” Eby said. “It rests in the right places; it pulls in the right places.”
Planning for this concert started back in February, and the process involved sifting through classics and lesser-known works as well as pulling from some of the travel suites that Ellington was drawn more and more to in the last decades of his life.
Eby said he expects that even Ellington buffs might be surprised by some of the deep cuts in this program.
“I think there’s so much new to be heard in Duke’s music,” Eby said. “It’s not old music if you haven’t heard it before.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra celebrate the music of Duke Ellington On Sunday, June 9, with two shows, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre’s Crown, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, $18. carolinatheatre.com