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A masterclass in bandleading and group playing
on 7 May 2006
The reviews below are, IMO, pretty churlish for what is one of the great live albums of all time, in -any- genre.
The original 'Ellington at Newport' LP consisted of the legendary Diminuendo/Crescendo In Blue performance (of which more in a bit), plus some re-recorded stuff with overdubbed applause, a shoddy and largely faked document of what was reportedly one of the stonkingest live gigs in history. The Columbia team have hunted down the original tapes and reconstructed the entire concert, bum notes and all. (The bum notes were the reason why Columbia insisted on Ellington rerecording a lot of the stuff in the studio a few days later. This CD includes the re-recordings, but restores the original performances, so nobody feels left out.)
By the time Duke and his Orchestra hit the stage for their second set at 11.45pm, they were annoyed at having been pulled off after a short set hours earlier and being made to wait before they could play again. Ellington's critical stock was down in 1956; he was regarded as a pioneer whose time had passed. He must have felt that he had something to prove. Most of the first disc of this CD consists of the first half of the concert; the Orchestra makes tidy and slick work of a handful of Ellington standards, and they do a nice job on the suite composed specially for the Festival. Then Ellington announces the Diminuendo/Crescendo medley. It all goes smoothly enough until, Diminuendo having diminuendoed, Duke leads via a brief piano solo into Paul Gonsalves' tenor spot. Gonsalves starts obliquely and softly, then gradually gets more confident. By the sixth chorus he's starting to dig in. By the seventh chorus, everyone knows something unusual is happening.
What was happening was a good player having a moment of greatness. Gonsalves keeps going, with the increasingly vocal encouragement of the rest of the band, spinning out riffs and ideas and generally refusing to give up, and with the backing of the rhythm section he drags the entire performance from being a solidly professional gig into a once-off event. Gonsalves' solo is proof that, to make great music, you don't always have to be a technical wizard. In 1956 Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, to name but two, were more obviously genius tenor players than Paul Gonsalves. You just have to have the cojones to bring forth what's inside you, and trust that the musicians you're playing with and the audience you're playing to will go along with it, and this one time at least, Gonsalves pulled it off.
When Gonsalves finally yields the stand, and the band picks up with Crescendo In Blue, the tension rises even further to an ecstatic finale. The audience pandemonium when they finally stop is like something you'd expect from Beatlemania. It's one of the most incredible group performances ever recorded, and is the principal reason why anyone who loves music needs to have this album.
That's not even the end. Ellington judged that to leave the stage at that point would provoke a riot, so he called on Johnny Hodges to cool the crowd. Hodges plays beautifully, and the result would have normally been the climax of the concert, if Gonsalves hadn't already raised the roof with twenty-seven choruses. (Hodges himself had recently returned to Ellington's band after a sabbatical, and was reportedly a bit miffed that Gonsalves got all the press for this gig.)
The irony of the whole thing is that Gonsalves was normally a subtle, quirky and meditative player, not given to the kind of large-scale showboating that he does here, and for the rest of his career after this concert he used to resent the way that Ellington was always getting to him to stand up and play honking blues choruses every time the band played 'Diminuendo/Crescendo in Blue'!
A fantastically restored document of a great performance. Live music doesn't get much more live than this.