Monday, September 8, 2008

Ellington, Hibbler, and Davis - I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues

Available (in various versions) on eMusic, Amazon, and iTunes.

I first heard this track on a podcast about Duke Ellington, part of a 4-part series from NPR Jazz Profiles. The podcast is a really great introduction to Duke that I would recommend for any jazz fan, even if the four parts do get a little repetitive. Here's a link to the first part. There's also a podcast that focuses just on Hibbler.

I've never played the track at a dance, and honestly I'm not sure if I would. It's slow, pretty far out stylistically, and the phrases are kind of disjointed. I might play it at a blues late night if there were some creative dancers there that were up for pushing their boundaries. I've also had it in my head lately that it would make for an interesting dance routine (though definitely a challenge to choreograph). But that's not why I'm bothering to mention it.

I'm blogging about it because it's a fascinating piece of music, both as an arrangement/composition and as a performance. Speaking just as a fan (not having any deep knowledge about Ellington's work), it seems to me to really epitomize what Duke does. Here, he takes a really good blues song and juxtaposes it against the sharp, modernist jazz style that his band does so well, turning a popular genre into a much more complex, captivating statement about life. That's what I hear, at least--maybe I'm reading too much into things, it wouldn't be the first time. Take a listen:

After a full-band intro, we hear Harry Carney's deep baritone saxophone simply stating the main melody. In between the breath of the melody, the band plays an odd syncopation--it's jarring to have the slow tempo of the melody rolling gently along while the band plays such an energetic, angular rhythm.

There's an interlude with just piano and bass, and then we hear Blind Al Hibbler singing the main melody: "Ain't got the change of a nickel/Ain't got no bounce in my shoe/Ain't got no fancy to tickle/I ain't got nothing but the blues." The timbre of his voice is pretty similar to Carney's saxophone, and he sounds very melancholy. Behind him, in between each line of the melody, Kay Davis hums a high-pitched, exotic harmony as the band plays the same odd syncopations as before. It gives the impression that nobody in the world notices that Hibbler is singing the blues--life just passes him right by. At the end of the phrase, Hibbler is almost interrupted by a jaunty trumpet, drawing the band back in.

Hibbler continues into a verse, with Davis singing these odd harmonies and a trumpet adding fills. After repeating the chorus, the bari sax comes back in, then there's a big outtro with the whole band rolling over Hibbler. But then no, wait, it's not quite done and it actually ends with the band playing a soft little tag.

The whole thing is disconcerting--each phrase is a different texture, and each voice/instrument heard sounds gorgeous on its own but amazing in combination. It keeps you off guard through the whole piece. In the Jazz Profiles podcast about Hibbler, Kay Davis says that when Ellington was first teaching the song to Hibbler, she was standing around just casually humming along. Ellington heard her, and told her to do the same thing when they performed the number on stage. Davis's wordless harmony hits some really odd notes that sound spooky and beautiful, which make for a very interesting contrast to Hibbler's strong, simple take on the lyrics.

No comments:

Post a Comment