If ever there was a record where you want the original vinyl over the CD re-issue, “Such Sweet Thunder” is the one. After scoring a major coupe with their CD re-issue miraculous re-creation of Ellington’s 56 Newport concert, Columbia turned around and dropped the ball big time on their re-issue of “Thunder” by accidentally editing out key parts of Clark Terry’s famous trumpet soliloquy. An unforgivable mistake, it will be interesting to see what eventually happens with that CD. Meanwhile, I recently visited the local used record shop and picked up a vinyl copy of “Thunder“ (famous high quality ’6-eye’ Columbia label) in very good condition at a very reasonable price.
Of all the various Duke Ellington 3rd stream style ‘suites’ and other progressive big band projects, “Such Sweet Thunder” is probably his most successful. Its not his most experimental or ambitious collection, but probably his most coherent, and therein lies this album’s ability to keep the listener engaged. Billy Strayhorn also wrote and arranged much of this, and maybe someday he will get a much deserved co-billing. Although not labeled a suite, “Thunder” has much in common with late 19th century exotic Euro-Asian suites by composers like Grieg, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Much like those composer’s colorful suites, “Thunder” is made up of short vibrant orchestral pieces that contrast with each other in sequence, but eventually add up to a logical whole.
Although Ellington and Strayhorn worked very much in a jazz context, in many ways their strengths and contributions to music put them more in line with those who can take a short pop piece and elevate it to high art. Its easy to see Ellington/Strayhorn as the beginning of a line that will progress through Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, and then on to Brian Wilson, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and more. Each one of the pieces on “Sweet Thunder” is like a unique gem, complete in itself, yet an integral part of the whole collection. I hesitate to use the word ‘charming’ as it can sound shallow, but these little instrumentals can be hella charming and not the least bit glib or shallow.
So many highlights to point out here; album opener and title song “Such Sweet Thunder” is classic Ellington with dark noire chords, swingin burlesque beat and wailing plunger horns, while follow up “Sonnet for Ceaser” is all about 3rd stream style abstract orchestral colors. Possibly the best pieces appear on side two with Strayhorn’s slinky mystical ballad, “The Star-Crossed Lovers”, and the exotic pseudo African colors of “Half the Fun”. The album closes with the up-tempo bop fire of “Circle of Fourths”, a bluesy riff that keeps modulating upwards until they’ve covered all twelve keys, all of this in only a couple of minutes.
This is an excellent album and a must have for fans of Ellington’s artsy side, just beware of the recent CD re-issue, there are a lot of unhappy customers out there.