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Duke Ellington completed Such Sweet Thunder, a jazz suite based on Shakespeare in April 1957.

I feel compelled to note the irony here. A black man wrote jazz about one of the most famous dead white european males in history, and this was before civil rights hit in the 1960's. Take that, Orval Faubus.

  1. Such Sweet Thunder {Cleo}

    The title comes from A Midsummer Night's Dream; "I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder". The piece, though, was inspired by Othello. In Ellington's words, this is "the sweet and swinging, very convincing story Othello told Desdemona. It must have been the most, because when her father complained and tried to have the marriage annulled, the Duke of Venice said that if Othello had said this to his daughter she would have gone for it too."

    As for the Cleo in the title, this was originally going to refer to Anthony and Cleopatra, but the idea was scrubbed.

    Now, maybe it's just me, but I don't really like the sax part on this piece. Too simple. The trombones and trumpets get to open up a little more in a wonderful opening, and the trumpet solo does a great job of sounding convincing and just a little bit nervous.

  2. Sonnet For Caesar

    The first of four sonnets, in fourteen-line form, no less. Slow, imperial, and tragic.

    The clarinet solo is pretty. Less imperial than one would expect though. It's actually a lot more languid than I expected.

  3. Sonnet To Hank Cinq

    For you unenlightened, this piece refers to Henry V. The trombone soloist, Britt Woodman, has a melody that the liner notes call "lip-shattering". Even hearing this piece can cause many trombonists pain.

    I happen to love that trombone solo here. It's a fine example of how specific Ellington can be, writing for particular musicians more than instruments. You can't pass a solo like that to just anyone. Short, but then, it has to be; I can't imagine Woodman not needing the rest.

  4. Lady Mac

    Dear Lady Macbeth. Ellington says "we suspect there was a little ragtime in her soul". A jazz waltz with some evil chords at the end.

    A touch of swing and ragtime. I like it - particularly when the trombones get the stop time section after the first few bars. I admit it - I love the way Ellington used the brasses in this suite. Try and see how many different textures the trumpets get on this one. And even the sax solo is cool. But the final chords really aren't that evil sounding.

  5. Sonnet In Search Of A Moor

    The second sonnet. Ellington actually plays piano on this one, a "Hi-Fi" introduction. This one's worth hearing for that alone.

    This is "Hi-Fi"? It's a very nice opening, and it certainly fits the piece, but it's not "Hi-Fi". I've never gotten that. Oh, yes. The bass solo line is very nice. More of Ellington's style; so what if basses don't normally get the melody? And I can see the symmetry of representing Othello that way.

  6. The Telecasters

    The end of Side 1, and some musical license is taken. "We took the liberty of of combining characters from two plays. It seems that the three witches and Iago had something in common in that they all had something to say, so we call them the Telecasters." The witches are played by the trombones, and Iago is the baritone sax, which fits quite nicely. The silence is also effective in this piece.

    The bari sax solo is way too pretty to be Iago. Iago should be slimy and evil. The piece is built on a strange idea, but it works all right. And witches with trombones?

  7. Up And Down, Up And Down (I Will Lead Them Up And Down) {Puck}

    As though it needs to be said that this is Puck. This piece is based on three couples (Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia, and Oberon and Titania), and Puck himself. The couples are Jimmy Hamilton and Ray Nance on clarinet and violin, Russell Procope and Paul Gonsalves on alto sax and tenor sax, and Johnny Hodges and John Sanders on alto and valve trombone. Clark Terry and his trumpet get Puck. Fun for all.

    On this one, the band is just having fun. One of my favorite tunes. The inclusion of a violin helps out a great deal, and Clark Terry does an excellent job as Puck. Just listen. It will be made clear.

  8. Sonnet For Sister Kate

    The third sonnet, based on The Taming Of The Shrew.

    Nice and slow. The trumpet solo is actually somewhat nondescript, in my opinion. Not as good as the rest.

  9. The Star-Crossed Lovers (aka Pretty Girl)

    Guess. "The sad story of two beautiful people." Johnny Hodges is back on the alto sax and Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax.

    I question the wisdom of having this done with two saxes. At times, it can be hard to sort the two out. Granted, Romeo and Juliet were supposed to be pretty randy and all. It's a good jazz love song, but I think Ellington could have done better.

  10. Madness In Great Ones {Hamlet}

    "In those days crazy didn't mean the same thing it means now." If you believe Ellington, it means "Cat" Anderson on trumpet playing notes that are too high to not hurt.

    The Man is back on his game. It takes a few listenings to put this one together. Awfully complicated, but all of it's great. This one really takes a good stereo to get all of. And, yes, the trumpet does go way higher than most people think a trumpet can (or should) go; that's gotta hurt.

  11. Half The Fun (aka Lately)

    The one-line introduction is "The generally accepted theory is that the mood was specific." The Nile, a barge, an ostrich fan, and Johnny Hodges, back for a third shot. (Sorry, no scantily clad Cleopatra.)

    The opening is rather repetitive, but it makes sense if you're trying to give the impression of a river. Solely as a matter of personal taste, I don't like this one as well. A lot of Ellington's slower work here isn't as good as the older material.

  12. Circle Of Fourths

    Now, this is interesting. There are four forms to Shakespeare's work: tragedy, comedy, history, and sonnet. Hence, Ellington based the final piece on the musical device, the Circle of Fourths. (Short version: the piece goes through every key signature, adding a flat each time.) Paul Gonsalves's alto sax is in the front again.

    This one is fast and beautiful, but I can't help but feel like it's a bit of a gimmick.

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