Saturday, November 8, 2008

Duke Ellington And John Coltrane - Sentimental Mood

“If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” ~Gustav Mahler As writers, we are trying to say what we have to say in words. However, music is a very important part of most of our lives. Pick a song from your myspace or ipod playlist and write about why that song is important to you. Feel free to add video to your post.

Do me a favor, please? You who know me. If you're still around at the end. The very end. When coils, mortal and otherwise have been shuffled off.

I'm not a sentimental man. I don't want for much. I've often said that a burlap sack and a six foot hole will suffice as a final resting place. The last thing I want is for those I leave behind to have to shoulder the financial burden of a costly funeral. But I also know that no matter what I say, funerals are for the living. You'll do whatever you want. Hell, in my case, you probably will just put be in a burlap sack and throw me in a hole in the ground. That's cool. I just ask one thing. Please play Duke Ellington and John Coltrane's rendition of Sentimental Mood at my funeral. That's all I want. The rest is up to you.


The mid 90's were when I hit my stride, picking up new music the way a two year old picks up a language. I was working at Camelot Records at Barton Creek Mall in a very unique situation. In the early 90's, the Camelot Corp. purchased every mall standing Hastings Records in Texas, increasing their standing in the state by dozens of units. And in the entire state of Texas, only Barton Creek Mall had a Hastings and a Camelot, resulting in two Camelots, not only in the same mall, but in the same wing, spitting distance from each other. Rather than shut one of the stores down, Le Grande Experiment was born. The inventory was re appropriated between the two stores, so that one unit sold Rock, Hip Hop, Country and everything else that actually sold. The other became known as the Classical Easy/Listening Store, an unfair sobriquet, as the store also stocked Jazz and Film Scores. Added to this, the store also had the distinction of being the only unit in the chain with a preview policy. Which meant that although the Pop store was constricted in the scope of what was allowable as in store play, the sky was the limit at the other store, provided you actually liked Jazz and Classical.

A difference of opinion over managerial style (my supervisor's, not mine) led me to seek a transfer to the No Man's Land across the courtyard. Settling in with a new manager, I slowly began to take advantage of my new surroundings. For starters, there were no customers. Seriously. The 'burbs just weren't ready for it. Occasionally the random University type would wander in , browse, realize that the selection was still better at Tower Records and leave. The store was not long for this world. So I took advantage. I took advantage of their disadvantage. With no customers, the pressure was off. I sat on a stool at the counter and I read. I wrote. And I listened. So much of the music I've come to take for granted came out of that period. The minimalism of Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams (not the president). The impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. The modernism of Arvo Part and Henri Gorecki. The fantastic film scores of Nino Rota and my all time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. But most importantly, there was Jazz.

It was during this period that I first heard Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. I discovered that Herbie Hancock didn't just "Rock It", he was a "Chameleon" who could funk as well as George Clinton when he wasn't taking it easy on "Cantaloupe Island". Art Blakey. Billy Holiday. Charley Parker. Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy Smith. Oscar Peterson. "Kind Of Blue". "Time Out". "Chet Baker Sings". "The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady". "Saxophone Colossus". Classics, every one.

But above them all, the twin saints of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. "A Love Supreme", "Black and Tan Fantasy", "Blue Trane", "Live at Newport", Giant Steps", "Far East Suite"...these were the records that really hit me in the gut. Coltrane would die in his early forties, pioneering Free Jazz, a style of playing that fifteen years later, I'm still trying to get my head around. Ellington would die at the age of 75, almost ten years after being absolutely screwed out of a Pulitzer Prize For Music that he had more than earned. Between them, they composed some of the most enduring music of the American Jazz idiom. And together they collaborated exactly one time, in a session that yielded only seven songs. Six of those songs were terrific. Exceptional, even. One was transcendent. It was a moment in time, captured on the first take and not repeated again. And it's the one song I want, to play me home.

By the time they recorded Duke Ellington's composition "In A Sentimental Mood", it was already regarded as a standard. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Django Reinhardt, among others had all had a turn at it. This recording session for the album that would come to be simply titled "Duke Ellington & John Coltrane" was largely seen as a friendly experiment, with muted expectations. Coming from two very different generations and styles of Jazz, there was some reservation about whether their dissimilar playing styles would prove cohesive. The end results, however, were absolute genius. Both men proved equally capable of give and take. Coltrane's saxophone provided a perfect compliment to Ellington's piano, and nowhere more so than on the album's opening track.

The piece opens with Ellington repeating a gentle six note melody, as the drum provides a quiet accent between measures. In the second bar, Coltrane's horn delicately floats into the room and establishes the theme as Ellington continues to play variations of his almost tiny six note melody. The effect is hypnotic. For the first full minute, the contrapuntal progression lulls the listener into an absolute state of bliss. By the second minute, the players ease into a more traditional arrangement, with Coltrane carrying on the second theme of the piece and Ellington staying in the background in the role of sideman, before returning to the initial theme and arrangement after half a minute. And then come the solos. A striking chord from Ellington announces his presence with authority as the tempo changes to a swing rhythm, in acknowledgement of the Jazz style that he pioneered almost half a century before. He seems to tip toe around the melody, playing phrasing that only bears a slight resemblance to the main theme. Coltrane picks up the ball and runs with it, continuing the side story that Ellington began during his solo, and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. And then it's back to the beginning with a restatement of the main theme, ending with Ellington returning to his initial six note melody.

And that's it. 4 minutes and 16 seconds, give or take. But I would venture to say that they may be the most perfect 4 minutes and 16 seconds that I've ever heard. I've sat with eyes closed and been in the room with the ghosts of two men who changed American music, Ellington sitting right/center and Coltrane standing over on the left. It's one of the few pieces of music that I know by heart, not as a player but as a listener. If I try hard enough, I can play the entire thing back in my head, capturing every slight nuance and every percussive accent. At it's heart, it's a love song, the main melody composed on the spot as Ellington, the Original Player, tried to impress two girls that were standing on either side of his piano. In the film "Love Jones", when Larenz Tate tries to seduce Nia Long, he knows exactly what record to play. "Sentimental Mood". And it works. And I'd be a liar if I say that I haven't put it on more than a few mix tapes, myself.

I can give no satisfactory reason for why this particular composition resonates so powerfully for me. It simply does. It is as much a part of who I am now as Wim Wenders' film "Wings Of Desire" and Vladamir Nabokov's "Lolita". But, taste is subjective and by no means definitive. One man's Aria is another man's Metal Machine Music. However, the personal choices we make, aesthetic or otherwise, are a reflection of us. The books we read. The films we watch. The music we buy. They may not be who we are, but they are what the world outside perceives us to be. The secret of life is to stop caring about how others see you and just do for you. And so I do. And I will hopefully continue to do so for years to come. Until, as James Brown said, "I cain't do no more!". And when the day comes that I've done my last encore, Danny Ray has thrown the cape over my shoulders and like James, I'm quietly escorted off the stage of life, I only ask one thing. Hold the after party anyway you want, just be sure that you play "In A Sentimental Mood" for me, just once.

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