'North Of The Border' was recorded in July 1967 and involves Duke Ellington performing as solo pianist with the Ron Collier Orchestra. The album was part of a project to showcase the work of Canadian musicians, and Ellington's presence was intended to give it some extra cachet.
The Canadian CD issue, released in 1995 on Attic, includes a 25 minute interview involving Ellington which gives some useful background information, as long as the listener is prepared to read between the lines. "I never really think in terms of having the piano solo responsibility", says Ellington. Asked how he liked having Ellington as his piano soloist, Collier responds: "Oh it was a wonderful experience and opportunity Ted, but it had its frightening moments, I'll tell you!" John Norris, a jazz writer and critic, is asked to give a 'quick critical analysis' of the resulting music. "Now you really put me on the spot, Ted!", he exclaims, before offering the expected platitudes. Putting it bluntly, if you haven't already got the picture, some of the music on this album is very undistinguished, and some of Ellington's soloing is inept.
I can excuse Ellington's ineptitude. He can be quite brilliant as a pianist who introduces, accompanies, fills or acts as a foil to another player. As he says himself, he is not really a soloist. Also, I suspect that more technically proficient pianists than Ellington might have viewed the prospect of soloing over some of this music as a thankless task. To quote Charles Mingus:
"You can't improvise on nothin', man. You gotta improvise on somethin'."
Ellington's playing illustrates this point quite beautifully. On the pretentious and rambling 'Nameless Hour' Ellington is hopelessly and cruelly exposed. He fares only marginally better on the appalling 'Silent Night, Lonely Night' and there are moments in 'Aurora Borealis' when it sounds as if Ellington wishes the earth would swallow him up. His best effort is reserved for 'Song And Dance', a song that has a recognisable theme; something for the featured soloist to get his teeth into.
Ellington collectors might find items of interest here, as I have. Viewed as a whole, though, this is a pretty soulless collection. The group of featured composers allowed themselves to be labelled 'Third Stream', a movement attempting to fuse jazz and classical music. It appears that they were more interested in finding the Stream than in writing songs.