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Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: Togo Brava Suite

To clarify one immediate misconception, Duke Ellington’s “Togo Brava Suite” (seven tracks) runs 29:05; the remaining 10 tracks on the CD Togo Brava Suite are unrelated treasures from Ellington’s legendary stockpile. The tiny Republic of Togo, in western Africa, showed more common sense in putting Duke’s likeness on a postage stamp in 1968, while our own country consistently bypassed him for a much-deserved Pulitzer.

Duke’s thank you to Togo, written three years after the stamp was issued, is as gracious as it is historically fascinating, and it’s filled with many moments-indeed whole tracks-that bear few ethnomusicological ties to Togo. But that is of little consequence. With soloists as eloquent as Harry Carney, Russell Procope, Paul Gonsalves, Rufus Jones, Harold Ashby, Norris Turney and Joe Benjamin, who cares about authenticity? This is, however, authentic Duke; that should give Ellington fans all the incentive they need to hear this first recording of the complete suite.

“Tego” boasts one of Duke’s most seductive melodies, played sans embellishment by Carney, as Ellington, Procope and Money Johnson gyrate around him. The band was definitely up for the session: the trombones never sounded better, and bassist Joe Benjamin provides a firm, consistent anchor for the crew.

The stockpile goodies were recorded between February and June in ’71 in the same studio as Togo, but the later sessions represent a vast aural improvement. The goodies also represent Duke at his most uneven: moments of divine inspiration contrasted with frustrating mediocrity. The one constancy, which probably explains those parameters: experimentation. He never stopped reinventing his orchestra, always searching for new colors, new voicings-to put old wine in new bottles.

Wild Bill Davis added considerable body to the occasional driving blues, yet in a track called “Blues,” his organ and Duke’s piano could not get out of each other’s way. Similarly, in the gospel shouter “There’s a Place,” singers Nell Brookshire and Tony Watkins are so many octaves apart their vocal sound is virtually nullified. “Checkered Hat” is a lovely tribute to Johnny Hodges by Norris Turney. Duke is at his introspective best, noodling under a great Carney solo on something called “Something,” which evolves into some rare Kentonish chromaticism for the band. “Grap,” from Duke’s score for his ballet “The River,” is an infectious jazz waltz and “Perdido” provides a fine vehicle for trumpeter Money Johnson and the spirited walking of Joe Benjamin. But Rufus Jones spoils some driving band efforts with tasteless rock drumming. It’s all very uneven.

Originally Published