ELLINGTON, Duke: Cotton Tail

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'Cotton Tail' Original Recordings 1940

By 1940, Duke Ellington had been a majorbandleader for thirteen years, he had developeda personal style as a pianist, he was aninnovative arranger and he had written a coupleof dozen standards. A household name for adecade and widely recognized as a genius,Ellington led a unique orchestra that continuedto thrive during the swing era despite the heavycompetition. Amazingly enough in 1940, his bigband actually improved from the high level ithad attained in the late 1930s. In fact, musichistorians often consider Ellington's orchestra of1940-42 to be his greatest.

Born 29 April 1899 in Washington D.C.,Edward Kennedy Ellington early on had dreamsof being an artist but instead he ended uppainting music with unique tone colours. Heenjoyed watching local ragtime and stridepianists perform and he emulated his musicalheroes, even slowing down James P. Johnsonpiano rolls so he could learn stride piano. Dueto his charming personality, Ellington was ableto get off to a faster start in his hometown thanhis early abilities deserved. Before he had aregular band, he placed a large ad in the YellowPages and was soon sending out groups toparties and engagements. He only knew how toplay a few songs initially, so his appearanceswith each of the orchestras was purposely brief.

Fortunately he was able to develop his musicaltalents quickly and in 1922 he went to New Yorkfor the first time to play with clarinettist WilburSweatman's group. That gig did not last longand he soon went home, but the following yearhe returned to the Big Apple as a member ofbanjoist Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians. Amoney dispute the following year resulted in thesidemen having a mutiny and making Ellingtonthe leader.

The Washingtonians were based at theKentucky Club during 1924-27, developing theirsound based on Ellington's writing and theinventive plunger mute work of trumpeterBubber Miley and trombonist Tricky SamNanton. In December 1927 Ellington landed ajob for his orchestra as the house band at theCotton Club and the regular radio broadcastsresulted in the band soon being billed accuratelyas Duke Ellington's Famous Orchestra.

The Cotton Club position and the Harlemnightlife scene shielded Ellington and hismusicians from the Depression and, years beforethe swing era began, Duke Ellington was ahousehold name. His band's personnel was verystable throughout the 1930s and theirrecordings were quite consistent both in theirquality and their quantity.

Even for Ellington, his lineup of musicians in1940 was very impressive. Cootie Williams(Bubber Miley's successor) and Rex Stewart hadvery different but equally unique sounds ontrumpet, and the same can be said for thesmooth virtuosity of Lawrence Brown and theotherworldly sounds of his fellow trombonistTricky Sam Nanton. Barney Bigard was one ofthe major clarinettists in jazz, Johnny Hodgeswas indisputably the top altoist and HarryCarney was virtually the only major soloist onbaritone sax. Ben Webster, the newest memberof the band having joined in March 1940, wasEllington's first important tenor soloist and heranked just below Coleman Hawkins and LesterYoung on his instrument. In addition to suchfine section players as trumpeter Wallace Jones,valve trombonist Juan Tizol, altoist OttoHardwicke, rhythm guitarist Fred Guy anddrummer Sonny Greer, Ellington was himself amajor player. And the year before he had addedthe first modern bass soloist in jazz, JimmyBlanton.

Add to that the adventurous arrangementsand compositions of Ellington and his newmusical partner Billy Strayhorn, and one has anorchestra with unlimited potential. It is nowonder that so many of Duke's recordingsduring 1940 are memorable. Out of the twentyselections on this collection, four (Do NothingTill You Hear From Me, Cotton Tail, Don't GetAround Anymore and In A Mellotone) becamestandards, Flamingo was a big hit and FiveO'Clock Whistle and Harlem Air Shaft werepopular.

The opener Jack The Bear has someprominent Blanton bass, which wasunprecedented in jazz at the time when bassistswere almost always restricted to simply playingfour notes to the bar. There are also some finespots for the unique voices of Bigard, Carneyand Nanton but Blanton constantly commandsone's attention. Morning Glory was one of thefinest features for Rex Stewart, whose half-valvetechnique allowed him to utilize alternatefingering to achieve an unusual tone. Ko-Ko,although a simple minor blues, is completelyunpredictable, mostly featuring the colors of theensemble propelled by Blanton.

Concerto For Cootie, a showcase for CootieWilliams, would soon have its melody simplified,its alternate theme discarded and lyrics added,transforming it into Do Nothing Till You HearFrom Me. Ivie Anderson, who had already beenwith Duke's band for eight years, sings on theforgotten but rather catchy Me And You whichfeatures Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodgestrading off. Cotton Tail, one of those rareinstrumental performances where every singlenote fits, has long been renowned for its perfectBen Webster tenor solo and the chorus by thesaxophone section, both of which becameintegral parts of the song.

Never No Lament would, like Concerto ForCootie, have its name changed (to Don't GetAround Much Anymore) when lyrics were addedbut the song itself would be unchanged. Hodgesplays beautifully, Williams shows why he wasconsidered such a valuable member of theorchestra and Brown plays with a great deal ofauthority. Dusk is a haunting ballad with aneerie harmony, a beautiful melody and aninventive utilization of the sounds of Stewartand Brown. Bojangles pays tribute to the verypopular tap dancer Bill \Bojangles" Robinsonwhile A Portrait Of Bert Williams remembersthe pioneering black entertainer.

The plot behind Harlem Air Shaft wassupposedly the depiction of the many musicalsounds and moods that can be heard in anapartment house in Harlem although the resultsare uniformly swinging. Several Ellingtonsoloists are heard from briefly on SepiaPanorama (including Webster and Carney) butBlanton steals the show. Blanton is alsosignificant on In A Mellotone (Ellington's freshmelody over the chord changes of "RoseRoom") but the stars are Hodges and especiallyCootie.

Ivie Anderson returns to sing the sly lyrics ofFive O'Clock Whistle while Johnny Hodgessounds quite sensuous on the slow balladWarm Valley. Chlo-e, which was initially asentimental ballad until being destroyed bySpike Jones in the mid-1940s, was an off-thewallchoice for Ellington to record. BillyStrayhorn's arrangement finds unexpectedwarmth in the tune, and features individualstatements by Nanton, Blanton and Webster.

Across The Track Blues has spots for Bigard,Stewart and Brown although it is the arrangedensembles behind the solos that really give thistune its own personality.

In November 1940 it was major news in theswing world when Cootie Williams accepted alucrative offer to join Benny Goodman'sorchestra. Luckily for Ellington, he quickly ranacross Ray Nance, a cornetist who not onlycould fill in expertly for Williams as a plungermute specialist but was a top jazz violin soloistand a personable vocalist. His impact would bequite strong in 1941.

Nance was in the trumpet section when theband revived the old warhorse The SidewalksOf New York in inspired fashion with spots forBigard, Nanton (perfect for this song), Webster,Hodges and Carney. Flamingo was an oddity,an Ellington hit on a song that Duke andStrayhorn did not write. It made Herb Jeffriesinto a star and in 2004 the 92-year old singer(who sounds sixty) still happily answers requestsfor the ballad. This collection closes withRumpus In Richmond, recorded a few monthsbefore Cootie Williams left Ellington, starringCootie, Brown, Bigard and the gloriousEllington ensemble.

Disc: 1
Rumpus In Richmond
1 Jack The Bear
2 Morning Glory
3 Ko-Ko
4 Concerto For Cootie (Do Nothing Till You Hear From
5 Me And You
6 Cotton Tail
7 Never No Lament (Don't Get Around Much Any More)
8 Dusk
9 Bojangles
10 A Portrait Of Bert Williams
11 Harlem Air-Shaft
12 Sepia Panorama
13 In A Mellotone
14 Five O'Clock Whistle
15 Warm Valey
16 Chlo-e
17 Across the Track Blues
18 The Sidewalk of New York
19 Flamingo
20 Rumpus In Richmond
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