Suite from The River

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            Jazz is considered primarily a musical style defined by solo improvisers, and rightly so.  But, it would be a mistake to diminish the important rôle played by composers and arrangers in that tradition.  If Louis Armstrong is the apotheosis of the former, then surely Duke Ellington is the preëminent of the latter.  Composer of perhaps two thousand songs, jazz suites, film scores, and later in life, even liturgical music, he used his long-touring big band as a vehicle for the development of some of the most sophisticated jazz ever written.  If there is one gift out of a plethora that should be singled out, it is his acute sensitivity to the unique talents of the men who played for him.   He skillfully exploited the variety of their individual tone colors and performing styles just as a master painter blends disparate colors into an artistic whole.  Unorthodox creativity in scoring created the “Ellington sound.”  All one has to do is to think of his evergreen “Mood Indigo,” wherein he turns the traditional spaces occupied by clarinet, trumpet, trombone (top to bottom, respectively) upside down.  “Mood Indigo” would not be the same piece at all in our musical consciousness without the unique sound of muted trumpet on top, trombone with “plumber’s friend” mute in the middle, and the soft, very low clarinet on the bottom.  His ear for sound color was right up there with Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel.

            The River is a ballet suite composed on commission by the American Ballet Theater for the important American choreographer, Alvin Ailey.  It was composed in 1970, and shortly thereafter given its première at Lincoln Center in New York City.  Ellington described it as a metaphor in which the progress of a river from its source in a spring, growing from a rivulet to a mighty river flowing into the sea, parallels human life.   Like streams, we begin life modestly, grow, change both our natures and our directions, encounter diversions and obstacles, and slow our life’s pace as we join the great universe of the sea.  The respective movements aptly illustrate not only episodes from this journey, but also are eloquent testimony to the complete musician that was Ellington.  His inimitable ear for tone color, rich and subtle harmony, and large-scale musical landscapes find fluent expression in these orchestral pictures for dancers.  The first movement, “Spring,” is largely given over to gentle wind solos that seem almost improvisatory, with implied exotic scales and harmonies.  “Meander” is book ended by cadenza-like passages in the unaccompanied solo flute.  The middle contains substantial orchestral sections in a variety of swinging tempos in big band style, but with a “film noir” atmosphere of the 1950s.  Even if you think that you don’t like Be-Bop, it’s hard to resist the scampering fun of “Giggling Rapids,” as a smooth, almost travelogue-like string section flows along punctuated by big brass riffs and bop-bob tunes.  Meditative solos and a lush melancholy driven by Latin rhythms create the “Lake.”  Swinging basses “walk” the “Riba” right on through to the last fade out.  Ellington trademark fills and riffs punch out through the cool string lines that prove orchestras can swing.  Ellington was jazz’s most important composer and arranger—that we all know.  But, as this sophisticated little suite admirably shows, his genius was not restricted to one style, one time, or one medium.  His artistry grew like a “river,” and American music would have been lamentably impoverished without his music near its core.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan