My Favorites (Jazz): "Satin Doll" From the 70th Birthday Concert Recording - Duke Ellington

When I teach my jazz history class I tell my students that this recording is the reason why I play jazz.  I was in jazz history class in high school and my teacher Justin DiCioccio played this for one of our lessons.  The first thing that grabs you is the heavy swing the whole band is laying down.  You can hear the mastery oozing through the instruments and when Wild Bill Davis comes in on the organ, his sound is majestic and gives a certain regality to the arrangement.  

Growing up in the Black Church you associate the organ with gospel and the spirituals and when it is played in a jazz context it brings a “holy” quality to the sound of the recording.  The fullness of the sound is so grand that it feels like a religious experience.  My previous concepts of grandeur in music where from listening to a symphony orchestra and listening to the soundtracks in movies, this Ellington performance, however, used a completely new sound palette rooted in the African American music tradition.  The drums, horns and organ bring together the sounds of the big bands and the sounds of the Black Church and create a grand sound which, for me, elevates this recording to a regal and noble expression of jazz.

Wild Bill Davis’ syncopated chord punctuations bring his solo to a climax and just when you think that it “can’t get no better,” Cat Anderson comes in with his infamous screech trumpet playing in a ridiculous part of the stratosphere.  

I was on a high when I first heard this recording because it had so many of the elements of a fantastic performance.  The whole band was in sync rhythmically down to the horn accents and even the improvisational noodling by some of the horn players during their backgrounds.

There is an elasticity that makes the recording so bouncy and loose.  One of the musicians that makes this happen is Victor Gaskins on bass.  His bass lines are so seasoned they tell their own story.  If you just listen to the bass for the whole recording you can hear how he is actually driving many of the moments that create the interest in the arrangement.  

Overall it’s the texture of the piece that smacks you in the face.  From the high frequency trumpet to the thick organ harmonies and then the rich sound of the trombones, saxes and trumpets filling up the colors on the canvas.  In fact everything is smacking you in the face, the driving rhythm, the organ solo, the screech trumpet, etc. that you are left picking yourself up off the floor trying to regain your composure.

And that’s the essence of a great recording.  It inspires you.  After hearing this I was inspired to be a composer so I could attempt to make music that would make people feel the way that recording made me feel: ecstatic.

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