Ellington_span3
May 2008

Duke Ellington
At the Côte d’Azur with Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Miró/The Last Jam Session

The rather dusty black-and-white footage, dating from the summer of 1966, opens with bikinis, beach umbrellas and Foster Grant-shaded sophisticates strolling La Croisette. The scene then shifts to a surprisingly drab hotel suite, where Duke Ellington explains that, though his career had taken him to all corners of the globe, this is his first visit to the French Riviera.

Ellington is there, with Ella Fitzgerald, for the Festival International de Jazz at Juan-les-Pins, but, as he enthuses in his introduction, he’s equally eager to indulge his love of modern art with up-close observation of works by Picasso, Calder, Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. As any fan of Ellington and/or Fitzgerald is well aware, an edited version of their four-night Côte d’Azur appearance was released in ’66 as a two-record set. That version found its way onto CD in 1997. A year later, a massive, eight-disc compendium served up the Duke and Ella sessions in their entirety.

This 64-minute DVD sits somewhere between the two. It begins with rehearsal footage of Ellington and his 14-member orchestra (including Johnny Hodges on alto sax and Cootie Williams and Mercer Ellington among the quartet of trumpeters) performing “Such Sweet Thunder,” then segues elegantly to an evening performance of the same number. “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call” and “The Mooch” follow (none of which appeared on the original double-platter set). Suddenly, the setting changes to the forecourt of the Léger Museum, where Ellington, drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist John Lamb perform in their shirtsleeves (while Miró himself, looking slightly less than enthralled, stands by watching), encircled by Giacometti-sculpted figures.

Then, it’s back to the main stage, and the full orchestra, for a fascinating glimpse of Ellington and company in workout mode as they fine-tune “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues.” At the 49-minute mark, Ella finally arrives. Oddly, though, we never see her perform with Ellington. Instead, he turns over the 88s to Jimmy Jones as Fitzgerald delivers a lively “Satin Doll,” a heartbreakingly beautiful “Something to Live For” and a spicy “So Danco Samba” filled with close to five minutes of gorgeously simmered scat. Finally, Ellington returns to provide a brief lesson in hipster finger-snappin’ on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” as the credits roll.

As vintage slices of Ellingtonia go, it’s a somewhat campy delight, but pales in comparison to the 90-minute bonus disc that captures one of the Duke’s final studio sessions (wrongly credited in the press notes as “one of his last ever concerts”), with Ray Brown, Joe Pass and Louie Bellson for the 1973 Pablo release Duke’s Big 4. As Brown remarks in an accompanying interview from a quarter-century later, this isn’t so much footage of a recording session as it is “just messin’ around and [letting] whatever happens, happen.” With Norman Granz hovering nearby, the four masters are in a laid-back mood. They kibitz, they chat (though, sadly, almost all of their conversation is inaudible), they noodle, they indulge in long, leisurely solos, they listen to playback. Mostly they engage in an hour-and-a-half of mutual admiration, while demonstrating what a superbly tight quartet they make on towering treatments of “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Just Squeeze Me,” “Cotton Tail,” “The Brotherhood” and a handful of others. Then, just when a kaleidoscopic “Love You Madly” makes you think the proceedings can’t get any better, Bellson and Pass pack up, leaving Ellington and Brown to meander through five sublime minutes of “Fragmented Suite for Piano and Bass.”

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