This little gem from 1956 has not received much attention over the years, but it contains some Billy Strayhorn arrangements, many fine solos, and much of interest for Ellington admirers. When Johnny Hodges rejoined the Ellington orchestra in 1955 after a 4½ year hiatus, he must have continued with Ellington’s longtime agreement that he could still record separately with members of the Orchestra. Less than a year later, Hodges was leading a group of Ellingtonians for a Columbia recording. For this recording his nonet had to fly from Chicago to New York and back during an extended Ellington Orchestra engagement at the Chicago Blue Note. This New York trip must have interfered with Duke Ellington’s engagement, but he was clearly happy to let his players go off with Hodges. He even wrote a composition (“Duke’s in Bed”) for the session.
For Duke’s in Bed Hodges chose the cream of Ellington’s orchestra. Two trumpets: Clark Terry and Ray Nance; three reeds: himself, Harry Carney and Jimmy Hamilton; one trombone: Quentin Jackson; and a rhythm section of Billy Strayhorn (pno), Sam Woodyard (drs) and Jimmy Woode (bs). The six members of the current Ellington Orchestra who were not invited were Paul Gonsalves and Russell Procope (reeds), Willie Cook and Cat Anderson (tpts), and Brit Woodman and John Sanders (tbs). It is interesting to speculate on these choices. Four brass players were not required for the sound that Hodges wanted, so he clearly picked the two best trumpet soloists and one trombone. The omission of Gonsalves and Procope is not as logical. Perhaps Gonsalves was considered not reliable enough and Procope insufficiently modern. I wonder too whether this selection affected the morale of the Orchestra.
So after a Duke Ellington Orchestra performance at Chicago’s Blue Note on August 26, 1956, the nonet flew to New York to record the music for Duke’s in Bed on September 1. They must have flown back right after the recording as they were due to play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra the very next evening in Chicago.
The nine tracks reflect Hodges’ taste. He was well known to feel that Ellington was a little too cerebral and his Castle Rock album, recorded 1951-2 and issued 1955, shows an inclination to blues and even rhythm and blues. Hodges nevertheless liked to play Strayhorn compositions that were extremely lyrical. And since he chose his friend Billy Strayhorn as the arranger and pianist for this session, the selections reflected both sides of Hodges’ taste. So apart from Duke’s composition for the session, Hodges chose two other Ellington classics: “Just Squeeze Me” (1946) and “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927). Both these selections were given a different non-Ellington treatment. Hodges also chose two Strayhorn compositions, “Ballade for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” which had just been written and was to be recorded for the first time, and “Take the A Train,” which of course was the Ellington Orchestra theme. Thus the album had a very strong Ellington flavour.
For the final four Hodges chose one Isham Jones composition and three of his own. The choice of Jones’s “It Had to Be You” (1924) is puzzling. Despite it having been a jazz standard for many years, the Duke Ellington Orchestra never recorded it. So what was the reason for this choice? The three Hodges compositions, “A-Doobie-Oobie,” “Meet Mr. Rabbit” and “Confab with Rab,” are all blues, satisfying Hodges predilection for riff numbers.
The Nine Tracks: What to Listen For
A-Doobie-Oobie (Hodges) An odd choice for the opening track. It’s a low-key, mid-tempo blues. Perhaps it was chosen for Hodges’ impeccable playing that’s close to perfection. Such clarity and tone and intonation.
Meet Mr. Rabbit (Hodges) A slow blues that’s tailor-made for Hodges. But Terry and Hamilton have better solos. Hamilton is especially successful when he goes into the lower register of the clarinet. Taking into account the slow tempo, the playing still sounds tired.
Duke’s in Bed (Ellington) Up-tempo blues riff played first in unison. Showcase for Hodges. Nance has a good solo flavoured with a Cootie Williams growl. Nice call and response between Hodges and the band.
Just Squeeze Me (Ellington) Ray Nance sings. Terry’s comic ad libs behind Nance. Respectable arrangement
Ballade for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters (Strayhorn) Fine Strayhorn ensemble arrangement that showcases Hodges. Unusual Hodges sound—a very hard reed? His syrupy tone is gone and a sharpish tone instead. Hints of a soprano sax. Hodges still plays sublimely. Some delicious glissandos.
Confab with Rab (Hodges) A bouncy Hodges rides the upbeat rhythm well. Listen to his intonation, his stressed notes. Short solos by Terry and Hamilton good but uninspiring.
It Had to Be You (Isham Jones) Ray Nance’s violin takes the head melody with tasteful and gentle variations. Then Hodges takes over, staying as close to the melody as Nance has done. Both soloists please but don’t make this track memorable.
Black and Tan Fantasy (Ellington-Miley) A clear tribute to the original 1927 Ellington recording, this gentle rendering captures much of the original, especially in the opening ensemble playing. However it lacks the spirit of the almost 40-year-old original. Carney, who played on that historic recording, solos at his most gentle before Nance produces a gem of a solo, growling in tribute to trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. Quentin Jackson, in his best solo on the album, maintains the mood with his plunger, and Hodges then takes control, but he doesn’t adapt to the spirit of the original recording. Consummate playing throughout but a comparison with the 1927 recording shows up the tired playing of these veterans.
Take the A Train (Strayhorn) The composer provides a wonderful slightly beboppish arrangement for the head. This track offers an unusual opportunity to hear Hodges solo on this number. As far as I know Ellington never invited him to solo on “Take the A Train.” Hamilton and Terry also solo well. A good example of Terry’s beautiful flugelhorn sound. Nance and Carney maintain the high standard of improvisation. It’s worthwhile comparing the five different Ellingtonians as the take their turn improvising.
“Duke’s in Bed” provides some first-class jazz. It has variety and good examples of the soloing from some of Ellington’s best musicians. Additionally, there are nine track of wonderful playing by Johnny Hodges. The only drawback is the somewhat lackluster performance of these middle-aged musicians.