Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Black, Brown and Beige
(Blue Engine Records. BE0024. Download Review by Patrick Hadfield)
Duke Ellington played the complete Black, Brown and Beige only twice: at a preview held in a school hall and at his first appearance at the Carnegie Hall in New York in January 1943. Comprising of three sections, each of three pieces, Ellington saw his first major large scale work as “a tone parallel to the American negro”, reflecting the role of African-Americans in the nation’s history.
The concert wasn’t highly regarded by critics: it was compared unfavourably to both Ellington’s previous compositions and the classical symphonic tradition.
Ellington had hoped to record it in full, but a recording strike by the American Musicians Federation meant it wasn’t recorded until 1944, and then his new record label preferred only excerpts of the full work, cutting it down from 45 minutes to only eighteen. To complicate matters, in 1958 Ellington reworked and extended the first section, Black, and added lyrics sang by Mahalia Jackson, which was released as Black, Brown and Beige. After Ellington’s death, a private recording of the Carnegie Hall concert was unearthed and released in 1977. (*)
Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra have recorded a 2018 concert of the original piece, conducted by Chris Crenshaw. It is a tour de force. The playing is lively and impassioned; understandably, JALCO is at its most Ellingtonian, elegant and swinging. Crenshaw’s notes accompanying the record explain how, when it was founded, JALCO included many members from Ellington’s band – “They taught us how to play this music”, he writes.
Black is the most fully realised section, perhaps due to familiarity with Ellington’s 1958 recording. Its three parts have a cohesive identity. The first piece, Work Song, bursts with exuberance, an opening fanfare and a statement of intent. It segues seamlessly into Come Sunday. Now a jazz standard, Ellington included Come Sunday into his first Sacred Concert. It is a slow ballad, played here with heartbreaking piquancy. The mood is lifted in Light, the final part of Black. Incorporating themes from both Work Song and Come Sunday but at faster tempos, Light is a rousing synthesis of Black.
Brown, the second part, continues the up beat mood with West Indian Dance. Another fast number, Emancipation Celebration, follows. JALCO capture the phrasing and dynamics typical of Ellington’s orchestral arrangements. After the up tempo, almost dance rhythms, the change brought about by the slow, mournful Blues Theme Mauve almost feels abrupt. It is the only vocal number, and Brianna Thomas captures the despair in Ellington’s lyrics – “The Blues ain’t nothing but a cold grey day…” – with heartbreaking precision.
Beige feels less complete than either Black or Brown: even the title of its first part, Various Themes, seems to suggest an undeveloped quality. The orchestra moves from one melody to another with changes in rhythm as one after another several soloists are highlighted. It is followed by Sugar Hill Penthouse, a beautifully smooth evocation of Harlem which features the baritone of Paul Nedzela and tenor of Julian Lee. The Finale brings back themes from earlier segments, notably Come Sunday, closing the whole piece with Marcus Printup blowing high notes on his trumpet in the best Cat Anderson style.
Black, Brown and Beige is a significant work, ambitious in its scope and vision, even if not wholly successful. JALCO have produced an exciting, dynamic version of it.
(*) I referred to Terry Teachout’s biography of Ellington, Duke: The Life Of Duke Ellington [The Robson Press, 2013] for the background on Ellington’s first Carnegie Hall concert.)