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Sonothèque/Jazz/Ellingtonia/Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges/Back to Back

Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges - Back To Back
Track Title Year Length Comment Mode Codec Bitrate Size
1 Wabash Blues 1959 06:31
Stereo Vorbis 346 16,87 MB
2 Basin Street Blues 1959 08:06
Stereo Vorbis 337 20,31 MB
3 Beale Street Blues 1959 07:39
Stereo Vorbis 332 18,93 MB
4 Weary Blues 1959 06:59
Stereo Vorbis 319 16,68 MB
5 The St. Louis Blues 1959 05:51
Stereo Vorbis 341 15,07 MB
6 Loveless Love 1959 07:13
Stereo Vorbis 324 17,50 MB
7 Royal Garden Blues 1959 05:24
Stereo Vorbis 343 14,03 MB
7 file(s) Length: 00:47:43 Size: 119,39 MB

Back to Back is a studio album by Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, released in 1959.
Recorded February 20 & 26, 1959 - Columbia Studios, New York
Length: 40:02 - Label: Verve - Producer: Norman Granz

Track listing:

    "Wabash Blues" (Fred Meinken, Dave Ringle) – 6:22
    "Basin Street Blues" (Spencer Williams) – 8:05
    "Beale Street Blues" (W. C. Handy) – 7:40
    "Weary Blues" (Artie Matthews) – 6:50
    "St. Louis Blues" (Handy) – 5:45
    "Loveless Love" (Handy) – 6:05
    "Royal Garden Blues" (Clarence Williams, Spencer Williams) – 5:20

    Duke Ellington – piano
    Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone
    Harry "Sweets" Edison – trumpet
    Les Spann – guitar
    Al Hall – bass (tracks 1 and 4)
    Sam Jones – bass (tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 7)
    Jo Jones – drums

The tracks with Sam Jones were recorded February 20, 1959, while those with Al Hall were recorded 6 days later.
(same place, same day as this other recording session where Sam Jones and Les Spann were also playing)

The original liner notes by Leonard Feather:
Duke Ellington is a gifted pianist —and a superlative blues pianist. That this simple observation has escaped the attention of many who are familiar with his name can be blamed less on the public (or the critics) than on Duke himself, who for thirty-five years has been so successful at juggling his reputation as band­leader, composer and arranger that his ability as an instrumentalist has been partly obscured by his more spectacular achievements.

Having collaborated with Billy Strayhorn in a book called Duke Ellington Piano Method for Blues as far back as 1943, I have long been pleasantly aware of Ellington's ability to express at the keyboard many of the ideas he has transferred to manuscript paper. In the course of assembling the book Billy and I went through our Ellington collections and dug up an exotic variety of examples to illustrate Duke's mastery of blues piano. The examples ranged all the way from the ultimately simple "C Jam Blues" through "Jack the Bear" to the adventurous harmonic imagination of his solo on "Sepia Panorama" and the intriguingly chromatic concept of "Mr. J. B. Blues", one of his memorable piano-and-bass duos with Jimmy Blanton.

That Johnny Hodges too is a magnificent blues performer can be recalled by a check through the discographical annals. A high percentage of the small-band records made by Hodges over the past decades have been miniature masterpieces based on the blues, structurally or at least in mood. And the very first records Johnny ever made on joining Duke's band were "Yellow Dog Blues" and "Tishomingo Blues", in June 1928.

Harry Edison and Les Spann, who share the solo work with Duke and Johnny, are blues-rooted performers of different generations. Spann, a 27­year-old guitarist from Pine Bluff, Ark., majored in music education and flute at Tennessee State U. His full-time professional career covers only two years (a few months with Phineas Newborn, briefly with Ronnell Bright, and the past year with Dizzy Gillespie). "Sweets" Edison, of course, has been geared to the blues at least as far back as his long (1937-50) tenure in the Basie band.

The Ellington piano is more prominently heard than usual in this set of standard tunes. Though "Royal Garden Blues" is the only one of the seven numbers based entirely on the traditional twelve-bar form ("St. Louis" and "Beale Street" use it with variations), the mood of the blues is maintained magnificently throughout both sides.

"Wabash Blues", a 32-bar theme composed in 1921, opens with a reminder that Latin rhythms can be effectively incorporated into a blues motif (and have been at least as far back as "St. Louis Blues", when Handy used a tango rhythm for one of the themes). Alternating phrases by Hodges and Edison build suspense as they lead into an exposition of the melody by Hodges with gently effective "comping" by Spann. Students of the Hodges style will not be surprised to observe that on his second chorus, though he ad libs more freely than in the previous 32 bars, there is still a strong suggestion of the melody. Sweets' choruses are based more on the chord structure of the piece than on the melodic line. Duke starts his solo with simple single-note lines to build to a two-fisted chordal attack in the latter passages before Hodges takes over again to reprise the theme.

"Basin Street Blues" has a curious history. Composed in 1928, it was popularized through a recording made late the following year by Louis Armstrong but gained a foothold on full jazz-standard status a little over a year later when, on a Benny Goodman Charleston Chasers record date, arranger Glenn Miller decided to dress it up with a verse, whose lyrics (Won't you come along with me...) were sung by Jack Teagarden. In all subsequent versions this strain was incorporated as if it had been part of the original composition. Sweets plays it right after Duke's introduction. Spann's solo is noteworthy for his use of a more prominent vibrato than is customary in contemporary jazz guitar and thus more compatible with the mainstream of jazz tradition. Hodges, in a characteristic solo, shows that by bending and glissing and slurring a series of straight quarter notes he can give each one a character and value of its own; the little octave-jump effect between his choruses is another typical Rabbit gambit.
The piano solo here is quintessentially Ellingtonian, complete with decisive chords, ingeniously syncopated phrasing, odd little arpeggios that always move downward, and a generally nostalgic air. Sweets' return is marked by a few moments of understatement (only one note apiece for the first three measures) but soon sails into a brilliant foray recorded with exceptionally fine presence. As a finale, the "verse" is taken out with a Dixielandish two-horn wind-up.

"Beale Street Blues" was written in 1916 by W. C. Handy for what was officially Beale Avenue in Memphis, not far from where can be found, today, Handy Park and the W. C. Handy Theater. There have been at least two full books written about the street, one of them titled Beale Street, Where the Blues Began. The first strain of the melody, unfamiliar to most jazz fans today, is recreated faithfully following Duke's introduction. Sweets takes over for a muted treatment of the second theme. Hodges' ad lib passage then lends the proceedings a somewhat sanctified air with a suggestion of the "Saints" in his blues-rich solo. Duke's subtle, sometimes slyly humorous placing of notes lends the usual grace and charm to his solo, dovetailing neatly into Spann's assumption of the spotlight. There are clear indications here, notably in the octave unisons, that Spann is among the many American guitarists who, directly or indirectly, must have been influenced by Django Reinhardt. Edison's solo starts out very much like some of the muted passages on his early Basie records and soon moves into a series of those single, mournfully stabbed, downward-glissing notes that are by now virtually his copyright. The concluding choruses have an easygoing interchange between the two horns, all of it created spontaneously in the studio with a minimum of preparation.

"Weary Blues" leads from an Al Hall bass introduction into an Ellington piano solo in which Duke plays as if the chords were sticking to his fingers and he has to shake them off. His second chorus is another unusual sample of pianistic Ellingtonia, with a funky atmosphere and a couple of phrases that recall Avery Parrish of "After Hours" fame. The two horns play the melody in thirds—a theme so simple, incidentally, that no one would dare to compose anything like it today. Notice how Duke's masterly control of the undercurrent, particularly during Harry Edison's solo, precludes any danger of monotony in the rhythm section. This is perhaps the simplest track in the album, both in construction and interpretation; it is also, for at least one listener, the most beautiful.

"St. Louis Blues" again brings Duke immediately to the forefront. Though he deals with the verse with one eight-bar treatment, he manages to do something different with it by attaching a fast rhythmic punctuation to a series of chords built around one note before taking off into an ebullient and humorous workout on the chorus. Hodges and Edison assume joint tenancy of the microphone for what might be called a series of questions and answers (though Johnny's questions for the most part are affirmatively swinging statements, and Sweets' answers more often sound like questions). The two of them end up riffing on a simple one-bar phrase which is repeated throughout the last two choruses. Since Duke's last version of this 1914 Handy classic was largely wasted on a less than sensational vocalist, it is good to hear him doing belated justice to the tune in this new and far superior treatment.

"Loveless Love" (also known as "Careless Love") is not strictly a blues. Handy, who said he heard the traditional theme as far back as 1892 in Bessemer, Alabama, documented it and published it under this title in 1921. Though he shares the solo work with Hodges, Edison and Spann, Duke again is the oustanding performer, using a fascinatingly varied approach, from basic single note passages to flurries of unpredictable chords.

"Royal Garden Blues", a 1919 Spencer Williams composition, may well have been one of the first jazz compositions to make use of riffs. The concluding passage played by Sweets and Hodges demonstrates how little the original melody has dated in four decades. On his solo here Duke seems almost Basie-ishly reluctant to play, but again he never does the expected, never sinks into a cliché.

After an initial hearing of this album, with "Royal Garden" as its contentedly swinging final track, one can only hope that in future LPs Duke may continue to allot himself a measure of solo assignments compatible with his talent, to remind his admirers that it is something of an oversimplification to repeat the by now trite slogan that the instrument Ellington plays best is his orchestra. On these sides there is no orchestra in the general sense of the term, yet Duke has found, on a more conventional instrument, a completely engaging means of personal expression.
Leonard Feather
Click for PDF version
Weary Blues score

Filed on 6/06/2016