As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations the Nu Civilisation Orchestra led by pianist /composer Peter Edwards took to the stage at the QEH to deliver Duke Ellington’s legendary ‘The Queen’s Suite’ alongside a suite of brand new compositions inspired by the Duke.
ALL Nu Civilisation Orchestra QEH photography by Graeme Miall / Tomorrow’s Warriors
As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee runnings Tomorrow’s Warriors presented the Nu Civilisation Orchestra at the QEH last Friday night. The mission: to explore a selection of Duke Ellington compositions including the once legendary ‘The Queen’s Suite’. The suite – which is in six parts – was co-written with Billy Strayhorn and was inspired by Ellington’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at an arts festival in Leeds in 1958. It’s a deep story.
Various reports from that time confirm the Duke was indeed a charmer and after the 22 year old Queen expressed some regret at not being able to check his gigs on that tour the band leader / composer’s face broke into a huge smile. He declared, “In that case, your Majesty, I’d like to write a very special composition for you—a real royal suite.”
From Christopher Carroll’s piece in Lapham’s Quarterly I discovered the following: In the wake of the recording of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ a master was prepared and a gold disc issued privately to the royal family. An agreement between Ellington and his producer, Irving Townsend ensured Ellington retained the rights to release the entire Suite at a later date. Eventually Ellington reimbursed Columbia $2,500 in production costs to buy the suite back from Colombia. Acccording jazz scribe Gary Giddins, hardly anyone outside of Ellington’s inner circle knew of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ until two years after his death in 1974. It was released posthumously, along with two other suites, by Norman Granz and in 1976 ‘The Ellington Suites’, released on Pablo records, notched a Grammy!
Appropriately, the 15 piece Nu Civilisation Orchestra kicked off the evening with a tribute to another queen… the piece was entitled ‘Royal Majesty – A Portrait Of Ella Fitzgerald Part 1’. It was great to see and hear Gary Crosby back onstage and holding down the bass seat. The man would clearly not have had it any other way. He has vivid memories of being presented with The Queen’s Medal for Music by HM herself and being told of her passion for both Ellington and acoustic instruments. Word is that her father, George VI had snapped up a few LPs by the Duke , and it’s well known that ‘Take The A Train’ and ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ propelled the young queen and her Prince onto the dance floor more than once .
‘Royal Majesty’ set the scene and allowed both the band and the overall sound to settle. The piece was followed by a suite in four parts written by Peter Edwards. It was called ‘Above and Beyond The Horizon’. Inspired by Ellington’s hugely expansive and finely tuned repertoire of compositions he had boldly applied his own composing skills to craft a tantalising set of compositions that were inspired by the natural world, by nature and the elements. We went from ‘Evening Song’ to ‘Raindrops’ to ‘Thunder Claps and Lightning Strikes’ to eventually arrive at ‘Morning Song’. It was an evocative journey that won the elegant conductor and composer an approving wave of warm applause.
It’s been a while since I’d been immersed in the sound of a big band and in that concert hall setting, free from chatter and other distractions, you can’t help but be pulled into the swirling orbit of its instrumentation and the complex, constantly shifting arrangements. It was one of my fellow travellers who described the experience as immersive and surprisingly meditative.
The second set burst into life with the ‘Tattooed Bride’ an Ellingtonian masterpiece from way back in 1948. Initially composed as an 11-minute jazz symphony divided into four sections it took us on a journey of contrasts…. mood, tempo and dynamics… and delivered memorable solos from Mebrakh Houghton-Johnson on clarinet, Rosie Turton on trombone and Peter Edwards on piano. Props has also got to go to Rod Youngs on drums… the man shone, not just on this piece, but throughout the whole gig.
That session took us into ‘The Queen’s Suite’ . Reading from Ellington’s autobiography, Peter Edwards, homed in on the Duke’s own words to illuminate the location and the inspiration for the varying pieces in the suite. At the heart of ‘The Queen’s Suite’ is ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’, rightfully regarded as one of the most beautiful and personal melodies Ellington ever wrote. On this night, as on the recording, it sat in the warm embrace of compositions that represented different musical landscapes — a grove full of fireflies, a mockingbird singing at sunset, the Northern Lights — all experienced by Ellington on his travels around the world and, apparently, representing some of the most moving moments of his life.
The set followed the order of the album… ‘Sunset and the Mocking Bird’, ‘Lightning Bugs and Frogs’, ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘Northern Lights’ ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ and, finally, the wild ‘Apes and Peacocks’ which was inspired by the Queen Of Sheba. The original recordings ran to around 20 minutes and the Nu Civilisation orchestra kept it tight but with some stunning solos. Big respect to Denys Baptiste, Maddy Coombs, Lewis Daniel , Rosie Turton, Joe Bristow, Kurt Mayling, Mebrakh Houghton-Johnson and Gary Crosby.
‘The Queen’s Suite’ is deep and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra rose to the challenge conjuring up an enthusiastic and deeply appreciative vibe from the audience. Listening to pieces there were moments when I felt like I was hearing Sun Ra without the more abstract avant-garde solos of Marshall Allen, John Gilmore or Danny Ray Thomson. That said, why not? Both Ra and the Duke were two master musicians who retained their big bands long after the demise of that era. Reflecting on the set, there was moment right at the end of the night, after a blazing tenor solo from Denys Baptiste, that I suddenly thought Rhiannon Jeffreys, who’d helped anchor the sound of the orchestra all night on baritone sax and bass clarinet, was gonna jump in and bust that baritone solo…. a wild Harry Carney or a bootin’ Danny Ray Thompson would have rocked the house. Sadly, it didn’t transpire… discipline prevailed! That said, a session was had and I shall now dust off some of some of the Duke Ellington LPs that I’ve shamefully neglected.
AND HERE’S THE ORIGINAL …. https://youtu.be/uIr9m1gb6VU
References: Harvey G. Cohen – Duke Ellington’s America / Duke Ellington’s Autobiography – Music Is My Mistress / Gary Marmorstein – The Label: The Story of Columbia Records / Christopher Carroll – Lapham’s Quarterly