Premiered by Ellington part 3

In the third article in the series about the album Premiered by Ellington, we will take a closer look at three more songs.

#3: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is composed by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. It was first played by Ellington from a simple lead sheet in 1928, and later that year it appeared in the Broadway revue Blackbirds of 1928. Ellington recorded the song several times from 1928 and on, and it stayed in the repertoire till the end of his career. Here I will focus on the second recording from November 10 1928, The Blackbird Medley from 1933, and of cause the 1953 version.

The song is written in 32 bar ABAC form. The 1928 version has 4 choruses and a 4 bar intro. It all starts with an introduction very similar to Black Beauty, recorded 7 months earlier. On the first chorus, trumpeter Arthur Whetsel is featured along with the sax section. Both plays fine variations on the song. On the 2nd chorus, Irving Mills vocal is in the spotlight, with Freddie Jenkins doing an improvised obbligato on muted trumpet. The 3rd chorus is split between Tricky Sam Nanton playing the melody and Baby Cox’s scat singing. The last chorus features Johnny Hodges with Barney Bigard ad libbing on top, and a simple repeated accompaniment from the rest of the horns. With the exception of a slightly shaky ending, this is a good and swinging version of the song.

Blackbird Medley from 1933 takes up two sides of a 10″ record, and contains 6 songs total. The first song is I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. Only one chorus is played here plus a half at the end of the medley. The tempo is much slower than the 1928 version, and the harmonies are more advanced. The trumpet soloist, Arthur Whetsel, plays the melody accompanied by sustained chords. The idea of chords in 3 breat groupings that were used on the 1930 version of My Old Flame is also used here. On the B section the trombones takes over the melody, and after that Whetsel is back.

Now we take a look at the 1953 version. It consist of two choruses and a 4 bar intro, and features Russel Procope on clarinet, Ray Nance on trumpet and Quentin Jackson on trombone. These guys was often Ellington’s choice when an imitation of the traditional dixieland line up was needed.

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love 1953, 1st chorus

Intro (0:00)A1 (0:10)B (0:31)A2 (0:53)C (1:14)
Clarinet, Piano, BassSolo: Procope (clarinet.) Sustained chordsMelody: Trombone’s Obbligato: ProcopeMelody: Procope and Carney (clarinet + bass cl.)
Sustained chords
Solo: Hamilton (last two bars)

The cheerful interpretation from 1928 has now completely disappeared in favor of a more melancholic and pensive style, typical of the Capitol period, and the tempo is even slower than the 1933 version. Procope’s clarinet is in the spotlight right from the start. Notice the intro with only clarinet, piano and bass. On A1 he plays the melody accompanied by mysterious sounding chords played by the trumpet section. On B the trombones takes over, very similar to the 1933 version. The way the chords moves around chromatically makes it sounds like they are about to leave tonality. After that Procope and Harry Carney (bass clarinet) plays the melody in octaves in legit style, rhythmically very identical to Whetsel in 1933.

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love 1953, 2nd chorus

A1 (1:36)B (1:58)A2 (2:20)C (2:41)
Solo: Jackson (plunger)
Acc: Clarinets and tenor
Sim.Solo: Nance
Acc: Clarinets and tenor
Dixieland ending
Trombones plays the melody.
Procope & Jackson ad lib.

The 2nd chorus consist of two solo’s and a dixieland ending. Jackson get’s the longest solo (16 bars.) The first 4 measures he plays the melody completely straight, and then he begins to vary it both rhythmically and melodically. He uses the plunger to good effect. Nance only gets 8 bars and his solo is completely improvised. They are both accompanied, very interestingly, by a trio consisting of clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor sax. The trio plays 3-part harmony in open position with Hamilton on top, Paul Gonsalves in the middle and Carney on the bottom. It is quite impressive how well Gonsalves manages to blend with the clarinets. On C the remaining two trombone’s plays the melody in the background in legit style, with Procope and Jackson (open horn this time) ad-libbing in typical dixieland style.

#4: Liza is composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn. Ellington and the band appeared on stage in Florenz Ziegfeld’s musical Show Girl in 1929, and Liza was the shows biggest hit. Despite that, the song doesn’t appear in Ellington’s discography until 1939 in a live recording as part of a medley. The 1953 recording is the only studio version. A few live recordings from 1953-54 has also survived, but after that it wasn’t captured on tape again.

Most of the songs on Premiered by Ellington were recorded immediately after their release in film, musicals or the like, so why didn’t they record Liza? In a 1935 interview, Ellington showed dislike for Gershwin new jazz opera Porgy and Bess, and this has led to the conclusion that he didn’t like Gershwins music in general. If that is true, it is certainly not audible in the 1953-54 recordings that i have heard. At least half of the 8 tunes on Premiered by Ellington was arranged by Strayhorn, but my guess is that Liza was arranged by Ellington.

Liza 1953, 1st chorus

Intro (0:00)A1 (0:11)A2 (0:22)B (0:33)A3 (0:44)
Piano & bass duetInst. 1(4 bars)
Inst. 2(4 bars)
Inst. 1(4)
Solo: Terry (4)
Solo: Gonsalves
+ background
Inst. 1(4)
Solo: Terry (4)

Liza is also in 32 bar AABA form. After the 8 bar dialog between Ellington and bassist Wendell Marshall, the tune is stated by two different types of instrument combinations. I have named them Inst.1 and 2. Inst.1 is, from what I can hear, the saxes with Ray Nance’s plungertrumpeton top. Inst. 2 is a 4 part tutti ensemble. Both Ellington and Strayhorn wrote 4 part harmony on one staff, and then the copyist distributed the notes to the individual instruments according to a specific formula. A technique that was used a lot.

The 2nd chorus is a trombone solo by Britt Woodman accompanied by the rhythm section with occasional backgrounds by the three lowest saxes. The 3rd chorus is Jimmy Hamilton on clarinetand Poul Gonsalves on tenor sax playing a bebop line in octaves. It’s one of the highlights in the arrangement, so much that they actually played it twice at a concert recorded just 3 weeks later! A similar line was also part of the arrangement of Perdido on the Ellington Uptown album.

Liza 1953, 4th chorus

A1 (2:22)A2 (2:33)B (2:44)A3 (2:55)
Solo: Carney (4)
+ ensemble shout.
Solo: Ellington (4)
Sim.Solo: HendersonHamilton + Gonsalves
in octaves.
Ensemble shout

As you can see above, the arranger often divides the 8 bar sections into two, thereby creating a call and response effect. Sometimes between two instrument combinations, sometimes between the band and a soloist, and also between two soloists. On B we get a rare solo from Rick Henderson. He was one of the be-bop inspired musicians that Ellington hired in the beginning of the 50s. He only stayed a couple of years and didn’t play many solos with the band. On A3 Hamilton and Gonsalves are back playing in octaves accompanied by a shouting ensemble.

#5: Flamingo is written by Ted Grouya with lyrics by Edmund Anderson, and first recorded by the Ellington band in December 1940. They recorded the tune again several times the following year, most notably for Standard Radio Transcription in September, and later that year, a film version for Soundies was made. In all instances the singer was Herb Jeffries. Flamingo was a regular part of the repertoire well into the 50s, and even shows up in the discography as late as 1972. Here I will focus on the 1940 version and compare it to 1953, both by the way, arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

First we take a look at the the 1940 version. Like most of the songs discussed here, Flamingo is also in AABA form, but Strayhorn expanded the last A to 14 bars. Here is an overview of the first chorus.

Flamingo 1940, 1st chorus

Intro(8 bars) (0:00)A1(8) (0:22)A2(8) (0:40)B(8) (0:58)A3(14) (1:16)
Rubato, Tutti.
Trb solo: Tizol
Vocal: Jeffries
Brass: off beat
staccato chords.
Saxes: sustained chords
Piano: Strayhorn
Key: Db major

Saxes more active. Sustained brass
Sim. to
previous A’s Modulation.

It all starts with Tizol playing the first three notes of the song, answered by a trumpet as an echo. After that, the whole band enters very dramatically and then brings it down to make room for Jeffries vocal. Notice, just before the vocal enters, the brass plays a few staccato chords. This is the basic idea for the brass section the whole first chorus. By introducing this idea before the chorus starts, Strayhorn creates a smooth and coherent transition into A1.

The whole song is basically two times AABA with an intro. But the transition that Strayhorn has created between the two is the work of genius. From bar 7 in A3 (1:31) Jeffries sings, technically speaking, a downward sequence of major and minor thirds with a minor seconds in between. It is no coincidence that these are the intervals that Strayhorn has chosen, because they are very prominent in the song, and that is one of the reasons why it works so well. At the same time, the arrangement is in the process of modulating to another key. It’s a slow modulation starting in Db major, going through A major and finally ending in Ab major at the start of the second chorus (1:50).

Flamingo 1940, 2nd chorus

A1(8 bars) (1:48)A2(8) (2:06)B(8) (2:24)A3(14) (2:43)Ending(2) (3:14)
Bar two and three
repeated by
different sections.
Trb solo: Brown
Modulation continues.
Key: Ab
Brown cont.
Key: F
Modulation continues.
Alto solo: Hodges
Key: D (or F) Modulation
Vocal: Jeffries
Key: Db
Piano: Strayhorn Key: Db

At this point, one would expect the new key to be fixed. But Strayhorn continues to modulate. On A2 we are suddenly in F major, and shortly before the B section we are in D major. But when we get to B, we are suddenly in F major. This leads me to another point. The song itself points in many directions tonally right from the start. At the beginning (1st chorus) it is clearly in Db major, but already in measure 3 it sounds more like Db minor. On the B section it passes E major and then back to Db major (and minor) on A3. When Hodges begins his solo on B (in the 2nd chorus) we are in D major, but it sounds like F major because the song itself modulates at this point, and that was the key we were in on A2. When it modulates back to Db major on A3 where Jeffries are back on the vocal. So all the way from the 7th bar of the first A3 (1:29) until Jeffries re-enters on the second A3 (2:43), Strayhorn creates a constant flowing tonality. This is just one aspect of the arrangement that makes it so special.

The attentive reader may have noticed that Strayhorn consistently modulates in minor thirds in the second chorus. According to Walter van de Leur’s book Something To Live For, it was something he often did. I like to call this technique “the circle of minor thirds,” and he probably got this idea through studying modern classical music.

Another thing worth pointing out, is that the shape of the song, like the tonal center, is also blurred at one point. In the first chorus the saxophones clearly signal the transition from one section to the next. But the transition from A3 to A1 is different, because A3 has no clear end. The 6 extra bars that Strayhorn has added is one part of the explanation. Another is the fact that Jeffries sings “fla-min-go” on A1. But instead of singing another chorus, he sings it as an ending. Then the muted trumpets continues the melody answered by two trombone, and after that Lawrence Browns solo starts. On the 2nd bar of A2 Jeffries sings “fla-min-go” again.

The 1953 version is a very attractive one. Quite different in many ways, but there is also many similarities if we look a little closer. The main difference is, that it’s an instrumental version. The tempo is also slower and it has that melancholy, reflective sound, typical for the Capitol era.

Flamingo 1953, 1st chorus

Intro(2 bars) (0:00)A1(8) (0:05)A2(8) (0:26)B(8) (0:47)A3(14) (1:09)
OrchestraPno. solo: Ellington
Sustained chords accompaniment.
Clarinet trio.
Key: F major
Sim.Sim.Solo: Gonsalves Modulation

In the first chorus, Ellington has taken the lead role that belonged to Jeffries. Here accompanied by sustained chords from the orchestra. A clarinet trio is heard now and then. A3 is also expanded to 14 bars and contains a slow modulation, but it’s not the same. The arranger here modulates up a forth instead of a fifth.

Flamingo 1953, 2nd chorus

A1(8 bars) (1:47)A2(8) (2:08)B(8) (2:31)A3(11) (2:53)Ending (3:24)
Solo: Nance (viol.) Sustained chords
Key: Bb
Sim.Melody: low ensemble.
obbligato: Nance
Key: A (or C)
Solo: Gonsalves Key: AbSolo pno: Ellington
Key: F

Then Ray Nance plays a beautiful violin solo based on the song with his typical dry sound. I sometimes wonder if he uses a mute to help getting’ this special sound? On B we have a very unique sounding low tutti ensemble. The key is now A major, but sounds like C for the same reason previously explained, and then Gonsalves are back on A3. It all ends with a mysterious piano solo by Ellington.

Author: Rasmus Henriksen