Liner Notes: Johnny Hodges
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