Duke Ellington | Ellington at Newport (July 7, 1956)
During the mid-1990s, as my musical tastes were developing, a badge bearing the slogan ‘Keep Music Live’ began doing the rounds. Bands were keen to show that their songs were not created by whiz-kid producers and session artists in the studio, but were able to bring their talents directly to the stage. Gone were the days of pop stars badly miming along to their latest hit single – instead the musicians were able to show their ability to hold a tune and actually perform – what they played was what you got.
There is a certain atmosphere that cannot be reproduced when you see an act live; a song, which previously was a deeply personal connection between you and the artist, suddenly becomes a shared experience with dozens – or even hundreds – of other people. And a performer can connect with this and, if all goes well, up their ante. So often it can be heard that a certain live rendition was the best that people, privileged enough to be in the audience, will insist was the greatest a certain number would ever be played; witness the numerous arguments between fans of The Who, each one insisting that the show that they had attended was the definitive live performance (an argument to which we will doubtlessly return when we reach the group’s Live in Leeds album in 1970).
But both these points leave a big question for Ellington at Newport – and one I overlooked in the rules. Because, while the performance put in by Duke on July 7, 1956, is regarded as one of his greatest moments, unfortunately, the original recording was so bad that he was forced to return to the studio and recreate the live show. For many years, this was the only version available – much like Thin Lizzy did 20 years later, the “live” show available on vinyl was the only recording you could hear – despite being a mixture of original recordings from the night, studio retakes and canned applause. But then, in 1999, the album was reissued on CD which, using the latest technology (probably doing something that would be far beyond my understanding), allowed the original live recording to finally be heard in full.
So what do I do? Do I stick to my initial rule – no reissues allowed – and force myself to listen to the album as it was first released. Because, while it is clearly going to be a good album, the reason for its inclusion in the book was for the simple fact that the original concert itself was so important – and I can only truly appreciate that aspect of it if I listen to the reissue.
To be perfectly honest, I’m setting myself up for a fall. I have no reason to dislike the extended cuts – if it were a movie, I’d wait for the longer director’s cut to make its appearance before heading out to buy it (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson). Heck, I even own the definitive box set of Blade Runner, which includes five (yes, really – five) different cuts of the film. In fact, it’s one of my most prized possessions. But I digress. In terms of a recording artist, it can be illuminating to listen to outtakes as they try to find their way (for example, there are some fascinating alternate versions of songs on the three Beatles anthologies – not in this list but highly recommended). But this isn’t about different takes of already popular tracks or even the occasional number which didn’t make the final cut as a result of space. No – this is about an album which, while in practice has been available since 1956, has only been able to shine for the last 16 years, since its release in a new edition.
Of course, all this is a completely pointless argument if the actual songs themselves – on either version of the album – weren’t any good. When Duke Ellington performed at Newport, it was the start of a resurgence for him; after a spell when his style of music had fallen out of favour with the record buying public, the release of this album saw him once again reclaim his title (indeed, this proved to be the biggest selling record of his career). And listening through it (and, yes, I went for the lengthy reissue rather than the 44 minute original), it isn’t hard to see why. The musicality of Duke and his band is incredible, switching effortlessly from slow blues to upbeat swing, often mid-number. I admit, jazz is not my forte – while the idea of sitting in a jazz bar appeals, I’d end up looking more like John Thomson’s Louis Balfour than any real expert. But I can appreciate both good music and talent when I hear it, and this album produces these two aspects in spades.
I’m not going to try to dissect this record in detail – I feel I’d need to be more knowledgeable to get away with my ramblings about the genre. Besides, the stand-out tracks are numerous; this is a record that churns out brilliant number after brilliant number. My particular favourite is the 8 minute Festival Junction, with some incredible playing from the musicians on the stage which just gets the body moving. But picking out one number is a little like choosing a favourite child – you simply don’t want to do it. And while the nature of the music would suggest something to be played at a dinner party (and it is wonderful music to accompany such an occasion), it also demands that you listen intently to each number. The concert’s reputation is immense – as is the skill of the Duke (I’m no jazz expert but I could tell you that he was regarded as one of the masters). Listening to this album, you realise that it is richly deserved. Don’t bother with the original recording – the more of such wonderful sounds as these, the better.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra