Duke Ellington: Harlem Air Shaft

Track

Harlem Air Shaft

Group

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

CD

Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Wallace Jones (trumpet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Rex Stewart (cornet), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Juan Tizol (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Otto Hardwick (alto sax), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Fred Guy (guitar), Jimmy Blanton (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: New York, July 22, 1940

Albumcoverdukeellingtonnevernolament

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This composition may not be as well known as "Satin Doll" or "Mood Indigo," but make no mistake about it: this is one of Ellington's finest moments on record and a landmark of jazz writing. Duke never had a better band than this historic unit, and he contributes a brilliant chart, full of surprising twists and turns. The repeated fake-out shift into half time, jarred back into hot swing by Greer's drumming, still gets me jazzed every time I hear it. And the soloists play with fire -- yet how could they not with such great writing and playing behind them.

Ellington has described the inspiration for this work in vivid terms. "You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft," he explained. "You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring." To convey this diversity of activities in sound, Ellington has expanded his palette and opened up his structure beyond the typical confines of 32-bar song form. And for a brief moment in American history, an art song with this type of intricacy could also be a commercial recording for a popular band. We may never see the like again.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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