September 1st is always a strange day in Boston. Many residents will find any excuse to be out of town that day. People of all ages and occupations take impromptu vacations, or call in sick to work, or pack into overcrowded trains rather than commute by car. Police are out in force all over the city. There’s a tension that hangs in the air like caustic smoke.
September 1st is the day that a large proportion of Boston’s 200,000 college students move from one apartment to another. It almost seems like the city is turning itself inside out. From dawn until well after midnight, hallways and stairwells teem with people carrying clothes and furniture. The streets are dammed by double- and triple-parked vehicles. Every year a handful of inexperienced movers manage to get their moving trucks hopelessly wedged in narrow alleyways and under low bridges. The city’s labyrinthine road system traps unsuspecting drivers in a Gordian traffic knot. Commerce and transportation grind to a halt. Nerves fray. Fists fly over parking spots and fender benders.
I like to stay home and read a book on September 1st. If I want a taste of chaos, I just listen to Ornette and Prime Time.
Like last week’s tune, this is a minor key vamp with no chord changes.
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.