Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 2

Today: An exquisitely playful "Boy Meets Horn"

Continuing our presentation of the final regular broadcast in August 1996 of Willis Conover's flagship jazz program, "Music USA", with Duke Ellington as guest in the VOA studios on 4 June 1965 discussing a previously unreleased concert by the Ellington Orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940, we come to an historic rendition of "Boy Meets Horn", composed by Rex Stewart (1907-1967).

In his erudite spoken introduction, Ellington begins, "And now we come to one of the psychological aspects of our performance"--Willis interjects a single "Oh" indicated both surprise and anticipation--"As I said before this is opening night for Ray Nance and the Band, andof course he being a trumpet player, when Rex Stewart [the song's composer] came up, and of course he did a sterling performance to demonstrate the high level of performance that was expected upon Ray Nance's entrance into the band, and in spite of the fact that I didn't realize "Boy Meets Horn" was so slow, this is it--but I think it's a good performance."

To interject some observations here before playing the piece--I'm by no means either a jazz expert or even connoisseur (as it is said, "I know what I like"): Upon hearing for the very first time the opening boop!/beep! boop!/beep! back and forth between the soloist and the band, then repeated again at double speed, I began to smile, and continued to do so throughout the entire performance, which is a tour de force of shifting-tempo humorous dialogue between soloist and ensemble: witty, sly, sometimes even sneering--not, not actually sneering, but rather taunting (of course with a mischievous sparkle in the soloist's eye).

For this is ¡JAZZ! with all its subtle blurring and fuzzing of note (melodic) and beat (rhythmic), effortlessly (but also deliberately) slippery in its seemingly casual and informal bonhomie, yet veering into a complex virtuosity that confounds any attempt to describe it, and can only be experienced:

Hearing "Boy Meets Horn", I now begin truly to understand, perhaps for the first time in my life (even the splendidly ironic title of the piece "cracks me up", as we used to say in high school), the ineffable appeal of big band jazz.

Even the simple outro is informative, with a blurred memory suddenly coming into focus between the two giants:

Willis: "Rex Stuart, cornet?--Is that right?"

Ellington: "I think it was cornet . . . instead of trumpet"

Willis: "194o. Duke Ellington".

--the cornet being slightly mellower in tone than its close cousin, the much more common trumpet, with its distinctively penetrating sound.

And in terms of sound, be sure not to miss the saxophones (?) hunkering humorously down, just before the end of the selection, into an almost impossibly low register.

Tomorrow: "Sepia Panorama", which was at the time of this 1940 concert the Ellington Orchestra's theme song, before "Take the A Train" was adopted as the group's signature tune in 1941.

(And again, our thanks to VOA's David Bodington, Conover's last Studio Engineer, for giving us a recording of this posthumous program, which he produced.)

No comments: