I’m not alone in considering Duke Ellington one of the great composers of the 20th century. His oeuvre traces the story of jazz, ragtime and gospel music in a way that made him an obvious choice for the state department tours of the 1960s that brought his orchestra around the world as ambassadors of American culture. Those experiences brought Ellington and Billy Strayhorn into contact with some of the traditional musical styles of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, and they wasted no time syncretizing those elements into new works for the orchestra.
I have long loved works like the “Far East Suite” and the “Latin American Suite”, but until recently I was unaware of the 1965 Ellington album Concert in the Virgin Islands. Like those other works, it was recorded in New York after the orchestra had returned from tour, and it features pieces that might be called homages to the lands they had visited. Most of the songs are vehicles for individual band members, including a lovely arrangement of “Chelsea Bridge” that features Paul Gonsalves. “Virgin Jungle” highlights the impeccable clarinet work of Jimmy Hamilton.
I first heard this song on Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1981 album Duke’s Memories.
It’s always difficult to notate songs like this one by Tomasz Stanko. There are a few versions out there, and they’re all different. That’s the point, really: the theme and bassline are a springboard for group improvisation, meant to generate a unique and unrepeatable performance every time. The melody can only be approximated on paper and each phrase must be cued by a leader, meaning the players have to watch and listen closely rather than look down at sheet music.
This particular lead sheet is based on the trumpeter’s first recorded version, on his Balladyna album.
I read somewhere that of all his compositions Herbie Nichols liked this one best. It’s certainly one of my favorites, and it has something I find relatively rare in jazz – it seems to poke fun at itself.
Here’s another fun one by Hans Teuber, from Skerik’s 2003 live album.
Too Many Toys
Sonny Clark’s tribute to Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was a patron and friend of many jazz artists in New York City, most notably Thelonious Monk.
Here’s the funky opening track from one of my favorite Larry Willis albums, Inner Crisis.
Out on the Coast
This pretty tune appears on the album Swinging, Singing, Playing by the Count Basie Orchestra. One of only a handful of Basie alumni playing with the band, trombonist and arranger Dennis Wilson does a nice job of capturing the vibe and easy swing of the old orchestra. To me, this song calls to mind the Basie records of the late 50s, when Thad Jones was writing and arranging for the band. Wilson says he wrote this the day Basie died in 1984.