Duke Ellington: Across the Track Blues


Across the Track Blues


Duke Ellington (piano)


The Duke at Fargo, 1940: Special 60th Anniversary Edition (Storyville)

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

Composed by Duke Ellington


Recorded: Fargo, North Dakota, November 7, 1940


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

As the premier bandleader of the 20th century, Duke didn't really need to maintain the stride abilities he acquired as a youth. But once in a while he opened up the left hand a little bit and you could tell he played the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s, too.

This dance-band performance starts with a couple of vague choruses of stride. It's not the greatest playing Duke ever did, but it is the perfect curtain raiser for an astounding document of a classic Ellington band at its best.

0:00 Somehow I think that even Duke is uncertain what the next tune will be. He starts in the wrong key, G, and but then changes his mind and tonicizes D.

0:14 Sonny Greer, the original leader of this band, hears where Duke is going and begins checking Duke's forward momentum a little bit. "Not so quick, Duke! Sheesh, I always have to make sure you don't rush."

0:16 D major is a strange key, so the band fiddles on their horns to confirm it. Well, there's only one tune in the book in D --

0:48 Duke plays the correct piano cue that's on the studio recording. Jimmy Blanton thinks about coming in, but stops to take another drink or something. There's just a little erratic 2-beat in this chorus from Blanton, matching the 'oompah' of Duke's left hand.

1:20 Trombone choir, but also Freddy Guy comes in on rhythm guitar and Blanton (putting down his drink?) begins walking. Blanton, Greer, Guy: The beat could not be more earthy or swinging from now until the end of the performance. So far, this is my favorite Blanton performance that I've heard. As with Tatum, Blanton's undeniable virtuosity could obscure what a fabulous time player he was. Bonus: You get to hear Duke verbally control the arrangement, asking for additional choruses of Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart.

It's a superb example of early jazz's 2-beat - which is stride piano smoothly moving into a more modern 4-beat. But the continuum also runs backwards: pianists of this generation always show some echo of the 2-beat (and stride) in the modern 4, too. In fact, I can hear a left hand connected to stride in 1950s performances of Bud Powell, Al Haig, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Hank Jones, even Dave Brubeck.

Certainly, regardless of changing fashion and a resolutely walking bass, until the end of their careers both Ellington and Count Basie could occasionally stick some stride in there without anachronism.

Reviewer: Ethan Iverson

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