This Tattooed Bride is Beautifully Complicated
Apropos of little, I should start by noting that today is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington’s birthday. In the unlikely event that he were still alive, he would turn 105. I didn’t log on thinking I would write about him, but pondering his legacy is worth it, at least for the moment. For evidence of what he accomplished and the profound influence it had on future musicians, great and unknown, one need only listen to the newly reissued Masterpieces by Ellington and, on it, The Tattooed Bride. I can’t claim to have searched widely for evaluations of the piece, but as far as I can tell, only one critic, Stanley Crouch—someone with whom I generally disagree on principle—has singled this work out for praise. While what he wrote in his 1990 Esquire article excoriating Miles Davis’s fusion work escapes me, I can say that what I love about the piece is the way, especially in the contrapuntal passages in the middle, you can hear pre-echoes, as it were, of Charles Mingus. There are other places in Ellington’s work where one can hear techniques that the younger musician would adapt, but I don’t think there is a clearer example than this one. It’s a wonderful piece, though, for more than just its pointing in the direction of Mingus. In this, his second-to-last through-composed extended work (only Harlem would follow), Ellington demonstrates a sure mastery of both the vagaries of thematic development and the nuances of his individual musicians’ skills. The expanded versions of other tracks on the release, especially “Mood Indigo,” are equally worth a listen. Lacking some earlier bandmembers and perhaps eager to approach a classic with a different arrangement/approach, we hear Ellington justifying the praise he has received over the years—even if much of it was at the expense of other musicians exploring different territory.
Indeed, Ellington’s centennial year, for all the loving reappraisals it occasioned, served to obscure the contributions of many other vital musicians. For evidence, one need only compare the outpouring of writing on Ellington in 1999 with the scant trickle of work describing the influence of William “Count” Basie in this, his centennial year. But discussing Basie (and Seal, the person I originally intended to write about), will have to wait for another entry.