Tag Archives: blues

The Okeh Ellington

27 Apr

After my brother Jamie’s recommendation to seriously consider Duke Ellington as a resource for tunes that would work well in arrangement for a bowed string jazz combo, I looked up some reviews to see where to begin. I remember listening to some late, piano-heavy Ellington (or perhaps covers of Ellington?) years back and not being so impressed, so there’s been a little anxiety around the idea of returning for a close listen.

Picking up courage I found a good reddit.com thread with some recommendations.

I decided to start at the beginning with the 50-tune collection The Okeh Ellington, from his early period 1927-1930.

This well-written review by Kevin Gallaugher clinched it:

I empathize with the audiophiles’ comments here regarding sound quality of this recording, but at some point we must move on. Let’s concentrate on the music itself, groundbreaking art of the highest degree. These recordings come from perhaps Ellington’s most fascinating period, that two to three year window when his orchestra was not yet the world renowned, household name it would soon become, but was actually in the process of creating the body of work which would ultimately render that condition inevitable. During this period, the orchestra members seem fully cognizant that their band is the finest in the land. The recordings on display here palpably reflect that attitude. The blues was perhaps a more predominant element to the Orchestra’s sound than it would ever be thereafter. Critically, Bubber Miley is present, and in incandescent form. Miley was one of the most swinging, creative, emotionally expressive blues musicians who ever lived, and the growling, muted plunger style of interplay between Miley’s trumpet and Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone exhibited here would never again grace a recording studio once this period had passed. These two geniuses have influenced jazz musicians far and wide up to this day, whether or not they even realize who it is they copy…


Jamie, and K. Gallaugher, are absolutely right. The Ellington tunes are incredible. To my ear anyway, this is the pinnacle of what I’ve heard done with the blues. Check out Black and Tan Fantasy below.

Fun fact about Ellington: he was born in 1899.

One surprising thing to me is how similar the rhythm section in many of the Ellington recordings sounds to what Django and the Quintette du Hot Club de France would be doing in Paris with guitars a couple years later in the early thirties.

Compare Jubilee Stomp (Ellington) and Swing Guitars (Django).

All the planes that intersect

26 Mar

Last week was parent-teacher conferences at the Waldorf School, and I met with the parents of a second grade student in my general music class, both of whom are from Ethiopia. The father really wants to learn the Krar, a 5 string lyre-like instrument from the Ethiopian musical tradition. He was lamenting that he can’t find a teacher of the Krar in Chicago. I’ll keep an ear out, I told him.

A buddy of mine recently forwarded some wonderful mixes he’s made. Deep cuts, not the sorts of tunes one comes by easily. Mix003, an Ethio-jazz mix, starts with a tune called Tezeta. This is actually the name for a whole genre of Ethiopian jazz, somewhat similar to The Blues as a style in US music. I looked it up, and Tezeta means something like “reminiscence” or “nostalgia”. I asked the students’ parents if they happened to be familiar. Their eyes lit up and they told me that not only were they familiar, but Mulatu Astatke, the grandfather of Ethio-jazz and the arranger of this particular Tezeta, was playing a show in Chicago soon, did I know? I didn’t, and sadly it turns out the May show sold out quickly.

I did some research on the Krar, and it turns out that it, like the lyres we use in first and second grade music at Waldorf, is tuned to a major pentatonic scale. The planes begin to intersect.

Concurrently, I’ve been doing some blues improv with my cello students. We’re learning to solo over the 12-bar blues changes. I wrote a post at Chromawheelmusic about how Music Compass has helped me finally understand some things about why the minor pentatonic scale works so well over a major blues.

Returning to the mix I was forwarded, and this lovely tune Tezeta, I wanted to encourage some friends and family to build the major pentatonic shape on the Music Compass webapp, and experiment with jamming along with tune. Pentatonic scales are great for soloing as they seem to float easily over the music. It turns out that this Tezeta is in Eb, so forwarded the Major Pentatonic page from the soon-to-be-released Visual Guide to Music and suggested they try to build the pentatonic shape in Eb.

Eb Major Pentatonic

Meanwhile, my mom was in California this past week enjoying the beauty of life with some friends. She brought back a very sonorous windchime for my father, which he hung on the porch. He’s sent a couple of videos to the family Whatsapp thread because the label on the windchime asserts that it’s tuned in D pentatonic, and he’s quite puzzled. This source of his confusion? It sounds like there’s a Bb and an F in the chimes, which I’m sure he’s discovered by trying to jam along with the chimes on the piano. How he got the piano near the porch where the chimes are hanging I’m not sure I want to ask.

I asked him to send a video of him playing each chime in turn, which he did, and I gave video a close listen. It turns out that the windchimes are actually tuned to an Eb pentatonic scale, and thus will accompany Mulatu Astatke’s Tezeta perfectly.