Musings on a little-known Ellington gem

Later this month I will be a faculty member at the Mars Hill College Summer Music Camp (for middle- and high-schoolers in North Carolina). One of the joys of teaching this camp is participating in faculty recitals and ensembles and this year I'll be the lead alto player for the Summer Music Camp's faculty big band. 

One of the tunes we are set to perform is a little-known Duke Ellington chart originally recorded in July 1946 called "Rockabye River." Written as a feature for alto player Johnny Hodges, the piece juxtaposes an early Ellington "jungle feel" in the outer B-flat minor sections with a straightforward swing blues melody in the relative D-flat major. Hodges was the star in the D-flat head while a plunger-muted Cat Anderson (doubtlessly inspired by Cootie Williams) laid down some snarling calls in the minor contrasting sections. The primitive sound in the intro (complete with low tom-toms and a steadily rising saxophone unison in squared-off two-bar ideas) opens a sound world of menace and dark territory before the composition yields to an elegant, swank melody that is all sophistication and sex.

Listen to the recording provided here.

Isn't it just great? You can't play in big bands unless you know Basie and you know Ellington. I find that in Ellington's music there are so many stylistic quirks and considerations and exceptions that a true mastery of his compositions takes quite a bit of time. Clark Terry, who left Basie's band to join Ellington's once said: "Count Basie was college but Duke Ellington was graduate school." True story. 

So here I am in a position to play "Rockabye River" with a great ensemble and I have the task of imitating Johnny Hodges, a player whose sound and style was so idiosyncratic that of course he fit right in with Ellington's band - a band characterized by and that celebrated individuality. Hodges bends and glides between pitches, a blues guitarist trapped in a saxophonist's body.

Go back and listen to how Hodges plays the first four bars of the tune, how he smears from the G (concert B-flat) down a tritone to C# before bending up to the third of the chord, D. Also notice his choice of articulation on the low F, an extra whhfft of air that terminates with a hard tongue that sets up the C#-D bend on beat 4. The little staccato in Ellington's score comes nowhere close to capturing that nuance of Hodges' articulation and personal style.

Pay attention to Hodges' rhythmic vitality and variety when he solos in the call-and-response section of the bridge (starting at 1:39 in the provided recording). Here the blues guitarist disappears and the brimstone preacher assumes his rightful place, a minister and his flock exchanging affirmations. The rhythms are conversational, parlando, a rapid-fire babble of car salesmen, "Mamet-speak" decades before David Mamet hit Broadway. But most importantly, hear how Hodges always maintains the conversation with the brass. He is always chatting but the interjections never step on the toes of the melody!

My favorite part to play comes in the coda, as a chromatically descending line from la  (G) four bars from the end to mi  (D) on the downbeat of the penultimate measure sounds against a recurring tonic in the upper register. Hodges chooses to tongue every note in this passage and gives extra emphasis to the B-flats so that we may hear the diverging contrapuntal lines moving in oblique motion. What a masterful way to end a gorgeous three-minute composition!