Yesterday I took you back to 1958 and that worked out pretty well, so let’s stay there. The title above is a little confusing; it refers to Duke Ellington’s awesome album Ellington Indigos, and its titanic take on Willow Weep For Me; but picking just one song is especially tough in this case.
We have to be a little careful here, because Ellington Indigos has gone through a bewildering series of releases, with significant variation in the song selection, running order, and arrangements: There’s a good write-up at Jazz History Online. I have the CD, but the link above is to (I think) the original LP release, because you can stream it.
The album title seems kind of obvious in its intent: Other people on the scene played Blues, but Duke played Indigos, because that was classier and more downtown. I probably disagree, but hey, the music is great.
As with the Kingstons yesterday, the music is distinctly of another time; the string sections are a little too lush for modern tastes and Duke’s piano-playing a little over-ornamented. None of which should bother anyone, because holy crap these guys can play, and Ellington’s arrangements are one layer of genius on top of another on top of another.
The opening number Solitude probably has the flashiest arrangement, with different instrumental-voice combos sliding in and out to point out that this note is important and that chord change is worth noticing. Mood Indigo has a purity of line that makes me think of Bach. It opens with a long, contemplative blues conversation between Shorty Baker on trumpet and Jimmy Woode on bass; then gets richer and richer. My second choice for today’s song would be Prelude to a Kiss because it’s just so insanely dramatic; for a party trick, play it as loud as you dare on the biggest speakers you can find. Tenderly is the only piece that’s even remotely up-tempo, the orchestra sections joking with each other; then they fall silent and the outro is played, you know, tenderly. Dancing in the Dark has these weird uncharacteristic fast chromatic runs by Ellington against the string section that aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard before. And then Autumn Leaves, which is a sentimental song, is played for maximum sentiment, with (on the CD at least) an opening verse in (well sort of, anyhow) French.
But Willow Weep For Me has to win; the arrangement is fabulous and that melody’s descending line would draw tears from stone. In the course of writing this I learned that it was written by Ann Ronell in 1932; who seems to have been an interesting person. More or less every jazz musician you ever heard of has recorded it, probably because that descending line is gonna make anyone sound good.