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North of the Border in Canada
Duke Ellington
With the Ron Collier Orchestra


This recording session took place on July 24th & 25th, 1967 at Hallmark Studios Toronto. The studio was located at 22 Sackville Street. Sackville became the name of the record label of John Norris & myself.

The following review appeared in Coda Magazine – August/September 1967 Volume 8 No .3 [Pages 28 & 29]

North of the Border – A Review by John Norris
Getting Canadian music to the public has long been a serious problem. In an effort to bridge the gap, the Canadian Authors and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) are in the middle of a five year recording project during which $250,000 will be spent on Canadian music. For the most part this will be devoted to classical music. The eighth in the series of recordings was a little different though.

An LP was planned of works by Ron Collier, Gordon Delamont and Norman Symonds (Seen in photographs), all of whom are well known composers in Canada. It has often been the fate of jazz composition albums to languish at the bottom of record bins because they lack the magic of a famous soloist. In an effort to remedy this it was decided to invite a famous American musician to perform in the role of special soloist. Over a year ago they had decided that Duke Ellington was the man and he was approached at Stratford last summer by Louis Applebaum the chairman of the CAPAC committee. Duke immediately responded in the affirmative without fully realising the situation. As the time of recording grew nearer everyone became more and more apprehensive. How would Duke react to the music? After all, this was the first time he would record an album of works by other composers away from his own orchestra and the music was far removed from his own familiar ground. To make the preparation as complete as possible tapes and scores of the works were sent to Ellington but all to no avail. His busy schedule kept him apart from the material and he arrived in Toronto on July 24 without any real preparation having taken place. By the stunned look on his face as he saw the music of Symonds’ “The Nameless Hour” it was obvious that he was turning over in his mind just how he was going to get out of a very tight corner.

“The Nameless Hour” is written for a string orchestra without percussion, and in form and content has little relationship to jazz. It is a very beautiful piece of music – stark and crystal clear. While the strings ran down the piece a couple of times, Symonds sat next to the piano player explaining various things in the score while Duke doodled away occasionally. Except for the beginning and end there is nothing written for the soloist. In the solo sections the score merely carries notations guiding the performer to stay in the same tonality as the orchestra while playing in a contrasting manner. Duke gradually evolved a sparse single line approach that fitted well with the orchestra and the music gradually became more fascinating through a number of takes that were committed to tape.

Later the same day the second piece was recorded. A full jazz orchestra was added to the string section for Ron Collier’s “Aurora Borealis” . This was written, originally, for a television ballet so Collier amended it slightly for this recording. Ellington seemed more at home surrounded by familiar instruments and his piano parts became fuller, more flamboyant and more characteristic of the man. There was space for solos by Freddie Stone (flugelhorn), Butch Watanabe (trombone) and Guido Basso (trumpet) as well as the pianist. A variety of moods were evoked in this piece and Duke’s two solos were particularly good. It was always interesting to hear the way he developed and changed his approach as fresh ideas came to him.

The following day was long and exhausting. Collier’s own eleven piece band was on hand and four pieces were recorded. Delamont’s “Song And Dance was the first number and proved to be the most difficult. It’s in two sections and ref lefts different moods. Duke, more than once, got hung up during his own piano solo. This was eventually solved by him playing the first part unaccompanied. Not only did this provide an interesting contrast but it also allowed Ellington more room to explore his own ideas.

The final three pieces were all short. Symonds’ “Fair Wind” is a bebop theme that he wrote many years ago. It’s a catchy simple riff that was quickly put down on tape. Delamont’s “Collage #3” was a tough one for the band and only after much perseverance was it finished. Collier’s “Silent Night Lonely Night” was the final piece.

It was a difficult assignments or all concerned and the Toronto musicians performed with considerable accuracy and elan. The way in which they always came back in after a break in the music was something that only really top quality studio musicians can handle. A good deal of credit should go to Ron Collier for his arduous and difficult task as conductor. He managed to instil the right amount of enthusiasm and persuasion to his task and brought out the best in everyone. He maintained a close control over the whole session.

Ultimately, though, it was Ellington who provided the spark of genius that transformed the music into something extra special. Even though he was dubious of his own role it was apparent that his ears are as big as ever. ‘I’ve not read music since the Cotton Club in 1931’, was his comment at one point. He grasped what was necessary very quickly and helped produce music of much interest and accomplishment. It’s something to look forward to.


End Notes:

Photographs by Bill Smith

Aurora Borealis” [Ron Collier composer]

Song & Dance [Gordon Delamont composer]

Comments can be sent to classicimprov@yahoo.ca