Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy
Black and Tan Fantasy
The Great Summit: The Master Takes (Blue Note)
Mort Herbert (bass), Danny Barcelona (drums).
Composed by Duke Ellington & Bubber Miley.
Recorded: New York, April 3-4, 1961
Rating: 100/100 (learn more)
In the movie Amadeus, Salieri speaks about the perfection of Mozart's music, saying: "And music finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment; displace one phrase and the structure would fall."
That reminds me of this version of "Black and Tan Fantasy." The track is simply perfect; not one note can be displaced. Beyond its sheer architectural perfection, this recording and the song in this form achieve genuine greatness in musical art. Indeed, if forced – on penalty of having to listen constantly for a month to Barry Manilow – to pick the single greatest piece of American music and recorded performance of that work in the 20th century, this track would get my vote.
Surprisingly, these two greatest figures in jazz history had not recorded together before as featured performers, although both appeared on a single song for an Esquire All Star recording in 1946. This album, however, joined these two giants at the height of their mature mastery, and added two of their best-ever respective sidemen: clarinet virtuoso Barney Bigard (who played with the Ellington band from 1928 into the '40s) and trombone master Trummy Young (who played with Armstrong's All Stars for years). They all knew this Ellington music and Armstrong's playing in their bones, and reveled in making supreme renditions of Duke's pieces.
It is instructive to compare Duke's October 26, 1927 recording with this 1961 track. The newer version goes beyond polishing a diamond in the rough; the original, with various sound effects tried, instruments jumping in here and there, etc., is utterly transformed into an ultimate masterpiece of musical art. In fact, given their important improvised contributions, Armstrong especially, as well as Bigard and Young, in this instance ought to be considered co-composers along with Ellington and Bubber Miley.
Duke starts things off with an intense, fortissimo, march-like piano line, then quiets down to set the scene for Armstrong's dramatic entry (displaying the first of the exceptional dynamics in this track). Armstrong plays the opening theme in majestic manner at a stately tempo with his inimitable tone; Satch's lines are harmonically complemented to perfection by Young's muted and subtle trombone work. Ellington then elegantly restates the theme with flair, followed by Bigard's clarinet with one of his trademark parts, opening with keening high notes only to sublimely swoop down to the lower register, bringing out the richest, woodiest clarinet tone.
A continuation of Ellington's earlier section leads into Armstrong's keynote part. Here we have Satch displaying his finest tone, attack, creative interval leaps, and phrasing. His playing is stunning, with magnificent climbing and descending lines couched in an impressive overall structural coherence, exquisite accents falling in just the right places. In all of music, it is hard to find lines as breathtakingly stirring as Armstrong's here, especially the opening phrase. Thereafter, this impressive work continues, including Trummy Young's elegant version of the old growl trombone at one point, and Bigard playing even finer clarinet, his pure notes creatively mixed with fluttering tones that add texture, and incorporating more striking, swooping lines that amount to exquisite modern art. They famously end with a quote from Chopin's Funeral March.
Reviewer: Dean Alger