Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn: Tonk
The Best of the Complete RCA Victor Mid-Forties Recordings (RCA Victor)
Composed by Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded: New York, January 10, 1946
Rating: 94/100 (learn more)
The word "tonk" is a slang contraction of honky-tonk, an 1890s term for a cheap, often tawdry nightclub or dancehall. By the 1920s it also denoted piano music as typically found in such low-class establishments, stylistically postdating ragtime but predating boogie-woogie.
Here "Tonk" gets updated to the mid-'40s. Since Duke was reluctant to record its original orchestration for full band, Billy Strayhorn adapted his adventurous piece for two pianos, played by the close collaborators better known for sophistication than for experimentalism. Not surprisingly, then, this quirky Ellington/Strayhorn foray into avant-garde jazz is more refined than what, say, Thelonious Monk was then doing. Indeed, with echoes of "The Trolley Song" (1944) and "The Band Played On" (a hit for Guy Lombardo just five years before), "Tonk" has more in common with "An American in Paris" (1928) than with "'Round Midnight" (1947). The similarities are most evident when listening to Gershwin's tone poem as arranged for 4-handed piano roll by Frank Milne in 1993.
Yet while Gershwin sought to evoke the sights and sounds of Paris in the '20s, Ellington & Strayhorn draw an impressionistic portrait of an American honky-tonk from that same era. Naturally tonks weren't as tony as La Ville-Lumière, but that's undoubtedly what appealed to Duke & Strays. The energy of honky-tonks was African-American, not European. Accordingly, instead of Gershwin's lavish watercolor splashed across a 16-minute canvas, "Tonk" is a 3-minute sketch in charcoal that would never appear in a major exhibition but still provides a tantalizing glimpse of what Robert Frost called The Road Not Taken. Confronted by diverging paths in the artistic thicket of mid-'40s jazz—one strange but rich in artistic possibility; the other well tramped and commercially proven—Duke Ellington chose the familiar route, leaving the one less traveled to younger, more intrepid explorers. One can only imagine what inroads he and Strayhorn might have made if, instead of Taking the "A" Train, they'd tramped around more in the dissonant, herky-jerky delights of "Tonk."
Reviewer: Alan Kurtz