Monthly Archives: February 2011

CD Review: “Masterpieces By Ellington”


Duke Ellington—Masterpieces By Ellington (Columbia/Legacy)


“Masterpieces By Ellington” captures the greatest large group in American history at a pivotal time. Recorded in December, 1950, the album was foremost notable as the last stand for Sonny Greer, who held the drum chair down for Ellington’s first 27 years as a leader. It also marked the start of Johnny Hodges’ hiatus from the lead alto spot. Hodges made some excellent small-group recordings for labels like Verve and Bethlehem before returning in 1956; he added the last spark to ignite all pistons of Ellington’s “comeback” band, and stayed until his death in 1970.

It’s an awesome record, and the CD comes recommended. But what really sells this for the hard-core Ellington fan is that it offers extended takes of several classic charts in a studio setting. “Masterpieces” represents the special confluence of revolutionary technologies in the master’s palette at that time. Along with Columbia label-mate Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington was among the world’s first to master the potentialities not only of stereo sound, but also of the long-playing (LP) record format. This was the same group, basically, that waxed the seminal (and shockingly rare) “Track 360” for the label’s first stereo demonstration record, sharing space with the stereo debut of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”. But this was nothing new for this crew.

Moreso than any other single musician, Duke Ellington led the way in showing how music could be documented at every crucial phase of the evolution of recording technology in the first half of the 20th century. From the 78rpm discs of 1927, the years of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Reflections in Tempo” (the first song to take up two sides of a disc) through the primitive plate-pressings made on the spot in Fargo, 1940 and the literal live-wire acts that produced all those airshots, mono was all there was, and no one did it better. Stereo was his cue to re-record everything, all the while creating new stuff—small-groups, soundtracks, spirituals.

The album leads with an epic reading of “Mood Indigo” running 15 minutes-plus. It is an exceptionally satisfying piece of music, even by the composer’s stratospheric standards. “Sophisticated Lady” follows, running nearly 12 minutes—pleasant, but not mind-blowing. “The Tattooed Bride” picks up the pace, a brand-new composition with tight, aggressive ensemble writing that lays the Ellington-Strayhorn affinity for neo-classical counterpoint (think the Glenn Miller version of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”) against the episodic swing style they invented. There’s really a lot going on with this track, and it’s the emotional center of the album; it also presages another epochal decade for the Ellington band. They’re like bulls in the gate.

After that, the rest is just really good icing on a cake that could be eaten by itself. “Solitude” gets eight minutes, followed by three brief bonus tracks recorded a year later: “Vagabonds”, “Smada” and “Rock Skippin’ At the Blue Note”. Nice stuff, but it’s easy to grasp the symmetrical perfection of the original LP issue. All in all, “Masterpieces By Ellington” is a first-rate example of large-group jazz that has barely aged in the 60 years since it was recorded, and it’s truly one of the unheralded gems in Ellington’s output.

Original LP cover; February 18, 2011

Money Jungle: Alan Justiss (1943-2011)


[It took the death of my friend, colleague and long-time mentor Charles Alan Justiss to occasion the return of the “Money Jungle”, the creative cultivation of which he helped oversee way back in  the fall of 1999. This is just one of the many tributes offered to the old man, who had a lot of love to give, since his death on Valentines Day; there will be more stuff coming out in Folio Weekly, Ink19 and the web, in general. Certainly, amid the crush of activity that has commenced this year, I will find time to expand further on the thoughts collected below, but this is a preview of next week’s column.]

Space-Age, Near Dust

The light is out on the 17th floor on Lomax Street, at the retirement community Alan Justiss called home at the end of his life. That light has burned out, and it will shine no more. The light, like the man, was a beacon for people seeking the kind of real talk that is getting harder and harder to find anymore. No more late-night phone-calls with the smell of beer and cigarettes and wet typewriter ink digitized and dispersed by satellites into time and space, where scholars in distant galaxies transcribe them now.

The greatest writer our city ever produced will spend eternity nestled in a pine box in the pauper’s field, maybe with a marker or a mention and some care to his last intention. His overworked Underhill went underground, laid across a chest clothed cheaper than the baby Jesus, his hands clasped across corroding keys in propriety and prayer. His entire body gave out slowly, over the course of 20 years, but you see those hands and you know that serious work was done.

Ten fingers, carpals coiled like copper wires, fused to arms that did old-school labor, did the work of a thousand Angels, to pull thousands of men and women closed to the light, whether we wanted to or not. Ten fingers, ten pages done daily, every day, at minimum, since JFK was POTUS—and what did you do for your country today? What did any of us do? What will we do now that he is not there to point out our mistakes before they have been made? We will make those mistakes.

He would have been a great judge or politician, but he just could not stop telling people the truth. It’s a sad fact of life that we all ask questions whose truthful answers could not be handled. The smart money lies in spin and subterfuge, obfuscations oscillating like sub-atomic particles around a nucleus of truth—or, as AJ would say, “the exegesis”. He was always mindful of the need not to waste time on feathery language. You have a certain amount of space, so maximize it—provide the relevant data and make the reading smooth and enjoyable for the customer. Every word, every space, every punctuation, even the white space around the words matters.

He was found dead in his bed, one more Riverside sunrise burnt out into day, on my birthday, Valentine’s Day. It was the best- and worst-ever at once. The man was built of some material that does not exist anymore. He was literally about to die just a month ago—he held court at St. Vincent’s, making plans, then suddenly the Angel of Death got a contract gig in Egypt, and he was fine again, briefly.

Even after years of hoarding a wildly disproportionate share of every conceivable earthly delight, it took old age, bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, cancer, malnutrition, congestive heart disease, the aftereffects of having a lung removed and the immobility of a broken hip suffered in a vicious mugging years ago combined to kill him—and even then, it took damn near a decade. It is unthinkable that anyone would be surprised, yet the better you knew him, the more surprising it was. Even God tweeted “WTF?”

The only thing harder than overstating Alan Justiss’ role in the cultural evolution of Northeast Florida over the last 40 years would be stating it precisely. It would take an entire issue of Folio just to hold the names of the people he’s impacted and influenced. I can only speak for myself. I read about him in Folio when I was in high-school, 17 years ago. I called him, and kept calling. I can hardly conceive of how vastly different my life would be had I not met him. Many of my closest friends and colleagues I met directly or indirectly through him. Many others I’d not heard from in years, until just a few days ago. It is very much the end of an era.

We hope the power of his work persists, and that future generations can reap an approximation of the benefits we enjoyed from his life. The task of fully acquiring and arranging all those manuscripts is a likely logistical nightmare, neverminding the need to digitize it all so it’s available for further printings. But such matters are best-reserved for a later time. Right now, the flags of our city should be flying at half-staff, if not also upside-down. What we have lost cannot be regained, only recapitulated. RIP; February 17, 2011