Two of the most famous jazz musicians in history going head to head? That’s the prospect on this iconic recording “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane” which features in our list of best jazz albums of all time…
On the face of it, this is most unusual album, and for a number of different reasons.
It’s unusual to place a die-hard, modernist intent on pushing the boundaries of his music to the absolute limit, with a musician from a different generation who had already guaranteed his place as a giant of jazz.
It is also unusual in the personnel gathered for the session.
Perhaps the obvious option would be to bring in a bass and drums partnership that would complement and support both Duke Ellington and John Coltrane but no, it was decided to bring a bassist and drummer from each of their respective bands, and then mix up the rhythm section with different combinations.
Quite how Ellington and Coltrane managed to juggle this rather unsettling concept is something to behold, but juggle it they did!
Rather than a distraction, the schizophrenic feeling created between the ‘multiple’ rhythm sections contribute to much of the charm of the album, and combined with an interesting selection of compositions, mainly from Duke’s band book, the resulting album stands the test of time well.
Interestingly, the reasons the two men had for making such an album were quite different.
Duke had no reason to make a record at the behest of others, be it his manager or contractual obligation to his label.
After all, the Ellington Orchestra had seen an upturn in fortunes after their barnstorming performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
Ellington had also found a renewed energy as a consequence, and seemed keen to pit his musical wits with players of an entirely different approach to his own.
This hunger to push, or even test himself by playing with the younger modernists was entirely his own choice and also resulted in another album recorded just nine days earlier with bassist Charles Mingus and Max Roach on drums, and released on Blue Note in February 1963.
Coltrane, however, under contract to “Impulse!” had a slightly different agenda.
In the latter half of 1962 Coltrane had undergone some dental work that inevitably had an effect on his embouchure, and in additions had managed to damage his sax mouthpiece irreparably when trying to improve its lay.
For a saxophonist, either one of these can be disastrous, but both simultaneously must have seemed catastrophic for Coltrane.
In order to assist the saxophonist to get back in shape, and no doubt to keep Coltrane’s name in the public eye, producer Bob Thiele arranged some dates for Coltrane that would not exert him unduly while he regained his embouchure.
And also produce some material that would win over an audience that may have found the saxophonists earlier recordings a little hard to digest.
This ‘recuperation’ period would find ‘Trane recording an album of ballads with his Classic Quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones at the drums, and also John Coltrane & Johnny Harman which again allowed him to explore his ballad playing in a none too demanding setting.
During the same time span that Coltrane recorded his Ballads album, Thiele also seized the moment to pair Coltrane and Ellington together, and while the music played is very different, you can hear the tenorist working out some of his ideas as well as testing out his chops on some cuts.
While his respect for the older man is clear to hear, Coltrane is not looking to coast.
His playing at this time maybe a little more conventional compared to what had gone before, and certainly with what was to follow, but he is also unmistakably not wishing to be bound by the limitations imposed by dental and mouthpiece problems.
Ellington, by turns, is there to play and the way he adapts and responds to the different bass/drums combinations and the way he supports the saxophonist says much about Duke’s abilities as an accompanist and improviser.
Track-by-track – Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
Listening carefully to each the seven tracks on the album and the different combos is a fascinating and rewarding exercise, and it possibly comes as no surprise to many that Ellington handles himself at the highest level when playing with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
Duke’s composition, ‘Take The Coltrane’, written for the session is a fine example.
The knotty theme suits Coltrane down to the ground, and while Duke gets in first with his solo it is the saxophonist who steals the show.
Entering with a trademark robust opening statement, Trane is in full flight, and can be heard working on ideas that he would develop further on his own recordings to follow.
Sitting out initially, Ellington gives space for bass and drums to spur on the tenor but as the solo winds down Duke is in the thick of it tentatively adding his chords to fill out the sound.
Coltrane picks up the soprano saxophone for the only time on his own tune, ‘Big Nick’, and hear Ellington seems much more comfortable.
His accompaniment more decisive and his brief solo is played out in small stabbing statements.
‘Angelica’ written by Duke is handled superbly by the trio, but Trane’s entry at around the 1 minute 10 second mark is a little lacklustre and his solo lacks the focus of heard on ‘Take The Coltrane’.
Much more satisfying is ‘The Feeling Of Jazz’ with Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard taking over bass and drums roles, and the gently swinging tempo f this lazy feeling blues allows him to stretch out and bask in the accompaniment from the trio.
Ellington is superb in his playing behind Trane. This is also the case on ‘Stevie’ where the rhythm section gets the first minute or so to themselves.
Setting out the theme and feel of the piece, they have laid a solid foundation for Coltrane who enters with a phrase that has obviously been worked on, and one that will crop in various permutations on later recordings.
It is quite possible that the finest music on the album can be found in the ballads.
The reading of Ellington’s jazz standard ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ with Aaron Bell on bass and drummer, Elvin Jones, has long been regarded as a definitive reading of the composition.
Coltrane is majestic and his solo is perfect and totally in keeping with the melody and feel of the composition.
Such is the compelling nature of ‘Sentimental Mood’ it is all too easy to overlook the other gem of the album, Billy Strayhorn’s ‘My Little Brown Book’, again with the Bell and Woodyard taking care of rhythm duties.
I it is highly likely that Coltrane had not played this piece before the session or after, but immediately has a grasp of the harmony and chords and his playing is breathtakingly beautiful.
An album that is revered and widely regarded as a classic, and yet not without its flaws.
Coltrane went on record saying that he would have liked to spend more time with the compositions, but then went on to admit that if they had the luxury of more time then the music would have lost much of its spontaneity.
Album Info: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse!)
- In A Sentimental Mood
- Take The Coltrane
- Big Nick
- My Little Brown Book
- The Feeling Of Jazz
- John Coltrane (tenor & soprano saxophone)
- Duke Ellington (piano)
- Jimmy Garrison (bass)
- Elvin Jones (drums)
- Sam Woodyard (drums)
- Aaron Bell (bass)
Recorded: September 26, 1962
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net