Friday, January 7, 2011

Duke Ellington:
The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: A Suite in Eight Parts

At the start of Duke Ellington's album, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: A Suite in Eight Parts, Ellington himself speaks for a couple of minutes about the whole world "going Oriental." Apparently, Marshall McLuhan said something to that effect (read full incomprehensible statement here) and while McLuhan had some good points buried in his "going Oriental" statement (mainly because he threw every idea he had about Indochina at the wall and by happenstance, some of it stuck) none of it really matters to the music that follows. Still, Ellington delivers his monologue sincerely and intones that he and his band mates have, in their travels, "noticed this to be true" (that everyone is going Oriental, that is - were The Vapors inspired by this too? Do we have McLuhan to blame for Turning Japanese?). Ellington's enunciation is so precise and eloquent I don't even care what he's says, I just like listening to how he says it. He speaks as if he's teaching someone how to pronounce the words properly in English and the result is, in it's own way, a kind of Ellington a capella lead-in.

The music that follows doesn't match up against the extraordinary body of work Ellington produced before it but then, how could it? What it does do, and rather well, is take Big Band Jazz, Eastern and Western instrumentation, Oliver Nelson-style television theme scoring and rock-centered backbeats and blend it into an exciting mix of something one could call Big Band Fusion. The first track, Chinoiserie, opens with Ellington hammering away at the piano, solo for a minute or so before the horns come in and transform the sound into something slightly menacing and dangerous. In fact, most of the album's mere eight songs evoke feelings of disquiet and unease. It's easily one of the most atmospherically successful albums ever produced.

This mood carries through the first six songs, even as each one takes a slightly different tack. Didjeridoo, despite it title, evokes nothing of the outback but much of risky urban life. Afrique rolls into its melody with drums meant to evoke tribal rhythms but really sounds more like Benny Carter by way of Max Steiner by way of the 1930's Duke Ellington. Acht O'Clock Rock is Oliver Nelson dramatic punctuation all the way, right down to it's dramatically heightened final chord. Gong brings the rolling drums back in for a thematic reprise of Afrique and Tang opens and closes with sustained brass chords mingled with plucking strings that clearly influenced Bernard Herrman's cue music to the bloody aftermath of Travis Bickle's whorehouse shooting spree for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

It's not until the seventh song that the mood noticeably changes when True brings in the breezy, swinging rhythms of the late fifties/early sixties as a kind of tonic to everything that preceded it. Not that what preceded it was bad, just a bit heavy and True finds a way to lighten the load and allow the listener a breather.

The album finishes with Hard Way which brings everything back home. It's easily the most conventional of all the songs on the album and its placement is no accident. Since the entire album has maintained the air of Big Band Jazz throughout, the final song isn't as jarring as it probably should be, considering it sounds like a piece Ellington could have written in between Sophisticated Lady and In a Sentimental Mood. Instead, it sounds exactly like an encore for a band performing a new sound but not wanting to alienate its audience to the point where they won't return and listen again.

To say the whole album is a pastiche is both true and complimentary while that same term might be derisive when applied to another artist. With Ellington, it isn't, because few composers had the talent and skill to imitate, blend and mesh other styles with their own and make it sound so good. My only complaint is that he didn't conclude the album with another perfectly enunciated monologue designed to gently guide the listener to go back to the start of the album and begin again.