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Liner Notes: Johnny Hodges - Verve

Though this recording comes from Johnny Hodges' last decade with the Ellington Orchestra, the musical gifts that originally brought him into this most American of American bands during the last days of the Coolidge Administration were not only still intact – they had continued to grow over the years. As Stanley Crouch has noted, one of Ellington's signal traits was ability to grasp the essence of something and adapt it seamlessly into his own musical world. Ellington matured as a composer during the latter part of the 1920s, a period when Louis Armstrong's primacy as an improviser was unchallenged. Two other voices also made a profound impression on young players at the time: the New Orleans clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and the Iowan cornetist/composer Bix Beiderbecke. Ellington eventually found musicians who could summon up their essence in the midst of his orchestrations, while still asserting their own identities. Cootie Williams was the first of many Ellington trumpeters who would on occasion don Armstrong's heroic mantle for a melody statement, climactic shout chorus or impassioned obbligato. Cornetist Rex Stewart, originally inspired by Armstrong, had glimpsed the essence of Beiderbecke's bell-like tone and correlated melodicism of both Beiderbecke and his musical partner, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.; this can be heard on several solos of his from the mid-'30s. However, it was in John Cornelius Hodge (the final s came later) that the influence of all three of these jazz icons rested. In describing his discovery of hot music, Hodges told Stanley Dance: "I had taken a liking to (Bechet's) playing, and to Louis Armstrong's which I heard on the Clarence Williams Blue Five Records, and I just put both of them together, and used a little of whatever I thought of new." Of course, Hodges was being characteristically modest, for there was a great deal of individuality in his melding of these two approaches. His admiration of Bechet's playing led to an apprenticeship with the master: "…I joined Sidney Bechet at his club, the Club Bechet, on 145th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. He had another soprano, a straight one, which he gave to me, and he would teach me different things in the duet form. Then I learned all the introductions and solos, and if he was late I would take over until he got there… before I joined either Chick Webb or Duke." Though he gave up the soprano saxophone in November 1940, the Bechet sound remained an integral part of Hodges' portfolio, as this version of "I'm Just A Lucky so and So" so clearly demonstrates. Hodges' most striking originality came in the province of balladry, where he in turn would have a profound impact on Ben Webster. And like his peer, Benny Carter, Hodges could cite a page out of the Beiderbecke-Trumbauer book when he felt it was appropriate. With the exception of a brief attempt at bandleading (February 1951 through October 1955), Hodges spent the rest of his life in the Ellington band.

The advent of Billy Strayhorn into Ellington's world was a different matter. Originally hired as a lyricist, Strayhorn took advantage of the Ellington's band ‘s Spring 1939 European tour to pour over Duke's musical manuscripts. Within a year, Ellington had his first musical alter ego, off whom he could bounce any and all musical and aesthetic theories. The only comparable collaborator to precede Strayhorn was trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley, who collaborated with Ellington (mainly as a supplier of melodic material and an attitude towards the blues) on many of the band's early masterpieces. The partnership with Strayhorn, however, existed on a totally different and more focused plane. Strayhorn gradually developed his own voice in the Ellingtonian mold, and his first successes were vehicles for the man Charlie Parker described as the "Johnny Lily Pons Hodges". It was during this period that Strayhorn wrote "Daydream", originally conceived as a big band feature for Hodges, but which was first recorded in a small group version. One of the main delights in this collection (which is the Ellington band without Ellington) is hearing how Strayhorn reconceived compositions that had been recorded and left alone for decades. With typical creativity, he mixes and matches panoply of approaches.

Variety is an integral element in most artistic endeavors. In both the general and specific sense, contrasting elements help to define precisely what is what by virtue of what it isn't. This principle is explored in many manifestations within this disarmingly sophisticated collection of Ellington re-makes.

These arrangements vary from slight recastings of well-known classics ("Don't Get Around Much Any More") to brand-new interpretations of lesser-known titles, such as "Azure". The individual tracks as programmed here contrast interestingly with each other, and also with the original recordings. Ellington was known to have mixed feelings about his band recording under the name of anyone else. This case was probably an exception, for he knew that no matter what particular strains his relationship with Strayhorn had recently endured, their musical relationship remained sacrosanct. And Strayhorn seems to have had that in mind, for throughout his scores, many of the characteristic dissonances that occurred so frequently throughout Ellington's music have largely disappeared. Though the material and the musicians make it clear that this is an Ellingtonian product, there is something missing. This is not to imply that these performances are in way inferior to the standard Ellington fare; indeed, it is what Strayhorn omitted and subsequently added to these orchestrations that makes them stand out in the world of Ellingtonia. And what's more, Hodges received the leader's royalties from the recording. The first major difference is the absence of either Ellington or Strayhorn at the piano. Jimmy Jones was a elegant pianist and composer/arranger who in the mid-'40s frequently deputized at the piano on many Ellingtonian record dates, and knew the music intimately. Though rarely cited as a significant influence on other pianist's, Jones' sophisticated harmonies (hear him on the 1945 Don Byas Savoy session that produced "Candy", or the 1959 Ben Webster Verve date with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge) found their way into the mainstream of the jazz piano vocabulary. Throughout this session, Jones' avoids the temptation to mimic Ellington, and this is one of the first factors in why these recordings sound different. His subtle fills throughout "I've Got It Bad" are a highlight of this collection.

Second is the aforementioned subtle change in orchestration that Strayhorn effected. Decades of hearing these pieces played by the Ellington band set up a whole list of preconceptions. The specific choices as to which instrument played what, and where it played it was the province where Ellington expressed his genius. Strayhorn knew all of Ellington's compositional habits intimately, and in writing these arrangements, satisfied Ellington's desire to keep his product for himself, and gave even the most serious Ellingtonophile a new view of many well-known standards. This version of "Azure" will come as a shock to those familiar with the 1937 original, where Ellington used bi-tonality, exotic reed voicings and where it's connection to "Mood Indigo" was closer to the surface. Here we get an equally unusual treatment, but made up of entirely different orchestral resources. Strayhorn, like many of his peers, was a student of the other great bands of the era, and respected them all for their individuality (he told the innovative arranger Bill Finegan in the early '40s that he knew all of his arrangements for Glenn Miller). Here Strayhorn refracts "Azure" through an orchestral prism that merges Ellington with Claude Thornhill's band. In the 1920s, bandleader Isham Jones created a big band sound that placed an unusual emphasis on the lower sounding instruments, and used the tuba to great effect. This approach formed the basis for Thornhill's orchestra, which in addition to the tuba, also included two French horns (and a partridge in a pear tree). Thornhill, a gifted arranger himself, hired pianist Gil Evans to contribute music, and like Strayhorn did with Ellington, Evans found his own voice in this orchestral milieu. On Azure, Strayhorn even uses the piano/bass ostinato from Thornhill's theme song "Snowfall". The backgrounds are pitched in registers that Thornhill and Gil Evans (himself a great student of both Ellington and Strayhorn) favored, setting off Hodges' to great effect. Tracing influences and the reflections of one artists' work in another's is a complicated endeavor and far from a perfect science. This example hopefully shows that influences do not move in just one direction. They can be reciprocal, as they are in this case. Then there is the absolute freshness of Hodges' melody statements (especially the first bridge) - it is as though he were hearing the tune and playing for the first time. Granted, it had been out the band's book for decades (there is no known version, from the commercial or private recordings, from October 1940 until 1959!), but Hodges' ability to sound inspired while wearing a demeanor of absolute is something to marvel at.

(A word about the sound - although Rudy Van Gelder's achievements as a recording engineer are generally beyond reproach, I feel that Strayhorn's orchestrations are not well served by this sort of balance and separation of sections. This may have been done at the request of the record label, but nonetheless, the various sections of the band do their best to maintain the mystery that was so essential to the Ellingtonian effect, as it was known.)

Strayhorn came up with an interesting approach to one of Hodges' classic features from 1938, "The Gal From Joe's". One of the primary features of the original was the contrast between the plaintive minor melody and the shocking orchestral colors Ellington achieved in the ensemble passages. Here, the opening section telescopes what was in the original a rather lengthy exposition into a more compact statement (hear Jones' perfect 1938 accompaniment). Naturally, we get to the interlude sooner, and Strayhorn reflects on the aforementioned instrumental colors in a fashion that sounds at once more "contemporary", (more brass) yet far less "modern" (less interweaving between the brass and reed choirs). Hodges maintains his customary deadpan.

Some of the biggest surprises come where you'd least expect them, on the riffish blues that both Hodges and his record labels were so fond of. Inspiration can strike anywhere and at any time, and the Hodges solo on "Juice A-Plenty" skirts the edges all the phrases Hodges played on hundreds of similar efforts, and veers right off into pure, untrammeled invention. And since this recording was a feature for the leader's alto saxophone, the launching into a typically convoluted and beautiful Paul Gonsalves solo shortly after "Tailor Made" takes off comes as quite a shock.

Lawrence Brown's elegiac treatment of "Stardust" almost seems like an afterthought, but it's a wonderful afterthought. It contains references to fellow trombonist Jack Jenney's famous solo (recorded first with his own band, and a year later with Artie Shaw), yet remains purely a study in Brown.

A recording such as this, which was generally taken for granted when it came out, only grows in stature as the years go by. Ellington's primacy as a 20th century American composer is gradually becoming clearer, as are Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn's pivotal roles in realizing his concepts. Countless young musicians are finding inspiration in that musical world – one of them is the exceptional young altoist Steve Wilson, who said recently: "I discovered Hodges while a freshman in college. For me, that marked the real beginning of my desire to pursue the alto as a voice. Although I knew of Bird, Cannonball, Phil Woods and others, hearing Hodges for the first time was like finding a piece of myself. I found out what tone was really all about. In addition to being a great interpreter of ballads, he had as much depth in virtuosity and bluesology as anyone." Who could ask for anything more?

 

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