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Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: The Conny Plank Session

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Unreleased Ellington studio sessions have a paucity to match the plentitude of his vault live releases, so this crafty little quickie-just 29 minutes-is something of a revelation. The unlikely setup: Duke in Cologne in 1970 to record for synth-maven engineer Conny Plank, a man accustomed to working with Kraftwerk rather than swing titans.

But it’s fascinating to hear late-career Ellington go all experimental, embracing studio wackery. Of the two cuts here, meted out in alternate takes, “Alerado” has the surest form. It’s akin to a bluesy, flute-infused African samba, as though Ellington’s roots have enmeshed with Brazilian rhythms and commenced growing in Germany. One wonders how quickly the takes came after each other, if their approaches were much debated or decided on the fly. The first take is pastoral; the second has a more assertive ensemble that bucks up against Ellington’s Jimmy Smith-type organ voicings; and the third is gutbucket hoodoo driven by Harold Ashby’s tenor saxophone. This, clearly, is the Duke enjoying himself.

The three takes of “Afrique” could have been lifted from some bizarroland Can project. The first and best is pure sound painting with sweeps of organ roiling atop a drum roll that is akin to some tribal summoning. Stabbing piano notes break in at intervals, like that needly percussion one encounters in noir films as someone creeps up the back stairs. The old Turk has gone young again.

Originally Published