While Duke Ellington is not solely responsible for moving jazz out from the smoke-filled clubs and dance halls onto the respectability of the concert stage, it is arguable that his was the lion’s share of responsibility. Of course, there are those who might be more inclined to award him the lion’s share of the blame. Respectability, for them, was never what jazz was all about. Great jazz never shied away from the disreputable, and the concert hall was little more than a denial of the genre’s roots.
On the other hand, without growth music must inevitably stagnate. And getting the proponents of so-called serious music to pay attention to jazz, to show them the possibilities of long form compositions in in hands of a finely-tuned jazz orchestra, is certainly one way to foster that growth.
The 1976 posthumously released album, The Ellington Suites, now reissued in the Original Jazz Classics Remasters series, is a good example, if not the best, of that growth. The album, which won Ellington a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Big Band, consists of three suites, a form Ellington favored for the extended exploration of musical ideas. If none of the three suites on the album reach the level of “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” or the Shakespearean riffs of Such Sweet Thunder, that may be more a matter of subjective personal preference than objective criticism. Nonetheless, The Ellington Suites is an important album.
“The Queen’s Suite” was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, inspired when the composer was presented to her after performing at an arts festival in Leeds in 1958. A single recording was pressed for presentation to the Queen, but Ellington was not interested in releasing it to the general public in his lifetime. It consists of six movements, the most intriguing is the softly tender fifth movement, “Single Petal of a Rose.” The solo piano performance is a model of elegance. The programmatic elements of some of movements like “Lightning Bugs and Frogs” and “Apes and Peacocks” seem more obvious, even as they recall some of the signature Ellington sounds.
“The Goutelas Suite,” also in six parts, was written for the inauguration of the restoration of a wing of a 13th century French chateau as a salle de musique. It opens and closes with a short brass “Fanfare.” The bulk and strength of the suite is in the subtle tonal colors of the fourth and fifth movements, “Something” and “Having At It.
The original album closes with “The Uwis Suite” in three parts. It was performed during a weeklong Ellington workshop at the University of Wisconsin in 1972. The new remaster includes a previously unreleased piece, “The Kiss,” from the same session as the suite.
If this isn’t quite five-star Ellington, four-star Ellington is still something special.