Written by Kevin Whitehead from NPR
In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries; our Duke politely flirted with Her Majesty. Soon afterward, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen’s Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to Her Majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime. It’s not clear whether Queen Elizabeth has listened to it.
Ellington devoted special attention to The Queen’s Suite, which in the end hewed closely to his original sketch. Its six episodes were inspired by natural phenomena encountered in his travels: bird calls of two continents (“Sunset and the Mocking Bird,” featuring clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, was based on a bird call Ellington overheard in Florida), the Northern Lights seen from a Canadian roadside, and a ballet of hundreds of lightning bugs, accompanied by a chorus of bullfrogs, along the Ohio River. Ellington’s alter ego Billy Strayhorn wasn’t there that night, but composed “Lightning Bugs and Frogs” from Ellington’s description.
The suites Duke Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn were sometimes loosely tied together. The Queen’s Suite is unified by prominent use of clarinets, their woodiness reinforcing the nature theme. Ellington ties that back to his royal subject via the movement “Apes and Peacocks.” Those were among the annual tributes bestowed on the Bible’s King Solomon — natural wonders presented for a monarch’s delight. It’s on a new edition of The Ellington Suites, which has three of them.
The Goutelas Suite was recorded in 1971, after Strayhorn’s passing. It commemorated a ceremony Ellington had participated in years earlier, in which the restored wing of a medieval chateau was unveiled in the French hills. In a journal, Ellington wrote warmly of how the countryside’s aristocrats and commoners — its intellectuals, artisans and laborers, its Catholics and communists — had all banded together on the project. Ellington’s orchestral concept was based on a similar idea, which he’d learned hanging around a D.C. pool hall as a kid: “All levels could and should mix.”
The album The Ellington Suites also contains the Uwis Suite of 1972, composed for a University of Wisconsin festival. It’s best remembered for Ellington’s novelty polka, “Klop.” But it also includes “Loco Madi,” the last of the many train songs Ellington recorded, in a tradition that began with his inaugural session in 1924. A new edit gives us three more minutes before the fadeout. There’s also a previously unreleased tune from the Uwis session, although not part of the suite; “The Kiss,” like “Loco Madi,” adds electric bass to the rhythm section. Neither of those performances is a model of ensemble polish. But all posthumous Ellington is of interest — even if it can’t all be The Queen’s Suite.