10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks by Duke Ellington (as pianist) that I Can’t Do Without…by Liam Noble

In our growing series in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, pianist Liam Noble writes about Duke Ellington as pianist:

Duke Ellington. Photo source: New York Public Library
Duke Ellington. Photo source: New York Public Library

A musician once told me he thought that Ellington “couldn’t really play the piano”. I wonder if he’s reading this now and remembers our conversation, which ended fairly abruptly afterwards. A line was drawn in the sand: on the one side, speed freaks eager to chase technical benchmarks, on the other, musicians listening and reacting, making the spaces sound good. Miles Davis, Steve Lacy, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter: all God-like figures in my eyes. And this guy? Well, we haven’t played since and I only just thought of him now.

Ellington was the gateway to jazz for me. Although my first loves were Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, stride piano was somehow an unattainable and frankly miraculous level of attainment that I felt I could never reach. Ellington, though, just hit the piano in such a way that made the spaces sing around it. It was my way out of hacking through Chopin, and it was…possible. I always felt it was possible to play like him. Now, of course, I know better. So here I wanted to emphasise what he did as a soloist as much as an accompanist, although even as I type this I can’t think of the difference. 

Like Joe Zawinul said of Weather Report, he’s always soloing and yet he never solos. Accompaniments are never simply chords, solos are never just “lines”. It’s easier, perhaps, to see him as a kind of sculptor, each gesture standing on its own, huge sounding sonorities contrasting with the most whimsical twiddles. He’s almost throwing them away, but it’s a studied kind of looseness, each object existing in relation to what came before…it’s not about flow, but some kind of zig zagging logic. And the rhythm, always the rhythm, notes and chords start to sound like drums, always signals for something to happen. And with Ellington, it always does. His personality is such a strong one, yet it’s full of juicy contradictions that give the music incredible depth.

1. “Dancers In Love” 

This is pure “novelty” piano, and the almost comical downward slide of the theme is just the right side of comedy. But there’s always a serious intent beneath the showbiz gloss of Ellington – he’s unique in that respect. For me, it’s the incredible groove of the second section, a clear connection to the “stride piano battles” of an earlier era, that lifts it. There are many recordings of this, including a live one on “Live At The Whitney” from 1972, but this early one was my first.

2. “Tonk”

This was really formative for me as a teenager, amounting to a kind of permission to mix things up, to see “the rules” of jazz as merely being one strand of a many layered beast. This piece was just extraordinary for its time, the ambiguity of the harmonies seemingly shadowing those of Parisian neo-classicism. I feel like there was a real correlation between the two worlds… I had Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” recorded by Woody Herman on the other side of the tape!

3. “Kinda Dukish”

This is a lightly textured piece for Ellington, sparse chords softly played. It’s so delicate, you can hear him tapping on 1 and 3 (heresy in the jazz world), and yet it’s swinging so hard that it doesn’t take away from the groove. Like many Ellington pieces, it’s a fairly slight tune, but elevated to high art by what is found within it. This was recorded in 1953, before his famous resurgence at Newport 1956: amusingly, Scott Yanow on AllAboutJazz.com says of this recording: “He could have made a viable career out of just being a pianist.” 

Well done Duke, another great review there. 

4. “Duke’s Place”

From my first real immersive experience in jazz, this recording, with Louis Armstrong’s vocals, of “C Jam Blues” was straight to the heart of the mystery surrounding Ellington’s playing. He hardly plays anything, but what he does play transforms the very air around it, having its own logic, its own rules, and all out of a tune with two notes in it. It was my first (and still my most memorable) lesson in improvisation.

5. “Stompy Jones”

I play this track to students a lot. Everyone sounds great, Hodges and Harry Edison play beautifully, guitarist Les Spann has a slightly more boppy spin on things, it’s a relaxed, social get together kind of feeling. Then Ellington comes in and the dynamic comes right down, it’s quiet, too quiet. After toying with a couple of phrases lifted from Edison’s trumpet solo, the wind suddenly picks up again and there’s a sudden primal urgency as Joe Jones follows the pianist into the storm. When the band comes in, there’s no trace of the sunny mood of the opening, it’s full on and blistering. It’s transformed, magical. 

6. “Money Jungle”

My favourite ever piano trio track from my favourite piano trio album. Mingus and Max Roach seem to be pulling against each other as if locked in a tug of war, whilst Ellington, stuck in the middle, sounds somehow more modern than either of them. It’s a glorious, angry, uplifting mess. There’s no tune. The sound of Max Roach’s cymbal piling through it is one of the greatest things ever recorded.

7. “Solitude”

It’s easy to forget tunes like this can have such profound emotion. Ellington plays the head on his own, and then breaks into a kind of extended coda: like Bud Powell, he has an incredible sense of drama, like he feels the contrasts of the music more deeply than normal mortals… and when the band come in, his solo keeps things simple, repetitive and weird. Like Monk, he has an emotion all his own, a kind of angular romanticism.

8. “The Night Shepherd (Blues For Joan Miro)”

Seeing Ellington live on screen was a big revelation for me, the way he sits, the attitude to the instrument. He’s moving all the time, not showy and not too much, but his body is guiding the choices he makes. The expression is physical, not cerebral, and whatever flow he has comes from this kind of suppressed dance. Sam Woodyard has no cymbals – the irresistible push locks in with John Lamb’s bass with the lightest of brush strokes.

9. “Big Nick”

This album was my introduction to John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, and there’s a kind of fearless surge of energy here as they feed off each other. Ellington, however, never seems to sound like a fish out of water, always sticks to his guns. There’s a thrilling contrast between him and the saxophonist, both sound completely like themselves and illustrate how old and new traditions can coexist, producing a third, higher form of energy in their combination.

10. “Lotus Blossom”

This recording is almost unbearably poignant, Ellington playing as the band pack up around him. Billy Strayhorn, his inseparable partner in music, had recently died, and Ellington plays this ballad with a kind of angry urgency amid the tenderness. Perhaps he didn’t even know the tapes were rolling, and certainly the band seem oblivious to it. It’s almost as if we shouldn’t be witnessing this private moment of grief, yet it’s somehow necessary for us to do so.

LINK: Liam Noble’s blog

5 replies »

  1. This is a tremendous list and overview, with many great lines – for example, “Ellington just *hit* the piano in such a way that made the spaces sing around it”. Perfect! Give this man a regular column immediately!

  2. Yes, excellent list. And a lovely photo of Duke with Billy Strayhorn to accompany the piece – that ‘end of session’ solo recording of ‘Lotus Blossom’ is a favorite of mine as well; very moving. ‘Money Jungle’ sounds (to me) like the sort of piece that Cecil Taylor might have recorded at around the same time. None of them in the list, but there is also fine piano playing from Duke on those early 1940s duets with Jimmy Blanton.

    Thanks for the recent list of Bill Frisell’s recordings as well, Liam.

  3. Beautiful Liam, heartfelt and informative. With you all the way, and isn’t it amazing how Duke always sounded like Duke regardless of the piano or the recording? AW

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