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John Dankworth: A Definitive Concept Album

by John Cobley

Wednesday Jan 17th, 2018


John Dankworth leads his big band.


With the appearance of the LP (long-playing record) in the 1950s, the idea of a unified album gradually emerged. Rather than a loose collection of songs or short pieces of music, record labels gradually moved to albums based on a unifying theme. Of course the LP was ideal for symphonies and other larger works created before the invention of the LP. Of course the LP was also a perfect vehicle for a focused collection of songs from an opera or a musical. But the format also called for original music. Jazz composers, who generally wrote with recordings in mind, began to look to the LP as a vehicle for a unified work of 30-40 minutes. Such LPs were the early so-called concept albums. One of the first was conceived by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1957; Such Sweet Thunder was a suite written with the LP in mind. It was original music inspired by characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Gil Evans, though not using original music, was moving in the same direction with Miles Ahead (1957) and Sketches of Spain (1960). The former album was a carefully sequenced composition designed to showcase the trumpet of Miles Davis. The latter was organized around Spanish music from Rodrigo and de Falla to folk songs. Despite these and other early jazz albums based on a single idea, the concept album wasn’t firmly established as a genre until a decade later in 1967 when The Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This LP was the start of a widespread trend of concept albums.


The term concept album has such a loose definition that it could be applied to almost any album, whether it be an assortment of Christmas songs, a collection of arias for a soprano, or a recording of a particular concert. A narrower definition is called for. To reach such a definition I am introducing a 1963 jazz album that precedes Sgt. Pepper by four years. With What the Dickens! John Dankworth—or Johnny Dankworth as he called himself at that time—took the idea of a unified album to a new level that can properly define the concept album.



Like Ellington and Evans, Dankworth composed this work specifically for the LP format. What the Dickens! broke new ground in that its parts were unified not only by an extra-musical concept (various Dickensian characters) but also by repeated musical themes and by transitions between sections. This goes two steps further than Such Sweet Thunder, where the work is unified only extra-musically--by Shakespearean characters. Ellington did not use musical techniques to unify the work.


Dankworth used three repeated musical themes in What the Dickens! The seven “Dickens Notes” start the suite and are “repeated and doodled with” throughout the suite. The two other repeated themes are the Oliver Twist theme and the Dotheboys theme that reappear in different forms. (John Dankworth, sleeve notes, What the Dickens! Fontana MGF 27525)


To link the 15 parts of What the Dickens! Dankworth used several methods. In three cases he echoes a long note as a link with just a barely perceptible gap between. In another case he echoes the last two notes of the previous track. He also twice uses an ensemble chord by the whole band to end a section and to start the next one. But there are also clearer breaks. Three times he uses the harp to signal a new section, just as he does to signal the start and close of the whole work. Only twice is there a clear break between the 15 tracks. What the Dickens! is not completely seamless, but the listener does get an overall sense of continuity.


I am basically arguing that a true concept album has to have more than just an extra-musical unifying factor. There has to be some unity in the music itself. By employing three musical themes and by linking the sections with transitions, Dankworth has achieved a concept album that works.


Perhaps inspired by this success, the British composer went on to make another concept album where the unifying factors were even stronger, perhaps to the point of absurdity. In his The Zodiac Variations (1964), he has thirteen sections—the twelve signs and an opening “Theme.” All the twelve variations are based on this theme, which contains 5, 7, and 9 notes respectively. According to Mischa Donat’s sleeve notes (Fontana MGF 27543), “each of the [twelve zodiacal signs] is influenced by one of the seven ruling planets.” There are twelve variations, “one in each of the twelve major keys, each of which is influenced by one of the seven basic modes.” And further, “The order of the keys…is determined by the cycle of fourths (i.e., the key note of each variation is a perfect fourth above, or a perfect fifth below, that of the preceding variation.)” Dankworth went even further by insisting that each variation had to have soloists born under the sign being recorded.


Clever as all this might be, it didn’t work as well musically. In fact, this album is not considered as highly as What the Dickens! despite the addition of top American soloists like Clark, Terry, Phil Woods and Bob Brookmeyer.


So. Although I am arguing for a narrower definition of the concept album, I believe that the definition should not be too narrow. My definition is thus:  an album of original music that is unified both by an extra-musical idea as well as by some basic musical techniques.


1 Comment

Bill Guest Monday 11th October 2021

I vividly remember buying the LP in 1664, and playing it in our garret in Liverpool, and it has been a constant companion down the years in various formats. Witty, tuneful, and wonderfully played by the cream of Britain’s jazzmen, it remains my favourite jazz suite. The best thing JD ever did, I think.

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