I'd like to continue my series of Arranging Ellington posts by zeroing in on the two compositions you are invited to arrange — "Come Sunday" and "Almighty God." As you know, the deadline for submission (December 15!) is rapidly approaching, so by this point I hope you've done some of the recommended listening, reading, and viewing, and enjoyed immersing yourself in the world of Duke Ellington.
You may also have already decided which of the two pieces you would like to arrange. (You could of course choose to submit arrangements of both if you wish!) Remember, as you work on your arrangement, please post any questions and/or work in progress — I will be monitoring the forums regularly and will of course be more than happy to give you feedback!
However, in the even that you are still on the fence about which piece to arrange, there is actually a very clear choice in front of you: if you are the type of arranger who is excited by the open-ended possibilities afforded by material that is relatively obscure and has not already been widely interpreted, "Almighty God" is for you. This is a deep cut. Other than the original recording, I know of only a handful of versions, none of them well-known. (Granted, it is a difficult title to Google on account of the countless paint-by-numbers contemporary gospel tunes out there that are also called "Almighty God.")
On the other hand, if you are the type of arranger who is inspired by the prospect of bringing your own musical personality to bear on material that is very familiar to jazz audiences and has been interpreted many different ways over the years, "Come Sunday" is your jam.
The earliest non-Ellington arrangement of "Come Sunday" that I'm aware of of is this one from 1946 by the great West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson — still going strong at age 95! — but since then the song has been recorded countless times. Some of my favorite interpretations are by Abbey Lincoln, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderly (featuring Joe Zawinul), Eric Dolphy & Richard Davis, Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan, Andrew Hill, The World Saxophone Quartet (arr. Hamiet Bluiett), Sex Mob, and Linda Oh, but that is seriously just scratching the surface. (By all means, nominate your own favorite versions in comments!)
I'll have more to say about "Almighty God" in an upcoming post, but for today, I'd like to look at the original incarnation of "Come Sunday" and trace how the piece was first introduced by Ellington. Whenever you are writing any kind of arrangement, but especially when you are arranging something that has been done so frequently, I think it's absolutely essential to begin by going directly to the original source.
This may seem obvious, but jazz musicians are notoriously terrible about this. I can't count the number of times I've heard players and arrangers (including many who ought to know better) butcher jam-session staples like "Well You Needn't," "Four," "Blue Bossa," "Footprints," (the list goes on…) because they never bothered to really check out the original recordings. What invariably happens is that all of the singular, idiosyncratic details that make these tunes great get flattened out and replaced with boring, lifeless stock solutions. As an arranger, the last thing you want to do is inadvertently overlook musical information from your source that might prove useful!
The original source for "Come Sunday" is Duke Ellington's monumentally ambitious longform work, his "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro": Black, Brown and Beige, premiered at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943. Prior to this, no jazz composer had attempted anything remotely on this scale, and while the intricate, highly demanding score was beautifully executed by the band, the reviews were brutal. Composer-critic Paul Bowes, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune, called it "formless and meaningless… a gaudy potpourri of tutti dance passages and solo virtuoso work… the whole attempt to fuse jazz as a form with art music should be discouraged." Robert Bagar's World-Telegram review dismissed it as "far from an in toto symphonic creation." Henry Simon wrote in PM that the first movement, Black (the one in which "Come Sunday" is introduced) "all but falls to pieces." The famed record producer John Hammond even went so far as to write a piece for Jazz magazine headlined "Is the Duke Deserting Jazz?" The negative reviews clearly stung, and after 1943, Duke would never perform (or record) the work in its entirety again.
The knock against Black, Brown and Beige, then and now, is that it lacks the structure and cohesiveness required of an extended piece of music. Its critics have repeatedly made the claim that because Ellington never studied classical models in any systemic way, he never learned the formal techniques that would allow him to sustain a unified large-scale composition. I would argue that at least in the case of the first movement, Black, this criticism is largely unjustified. In fact, what we see here is that Ellington is employing homegrown, but nonetheless rigorous and sophisticated, techniques of thematic variation and development to a degree previously unknown in jazz (and still extremely rare today!). The contemporary composer/arranger can learn a tremendous amount by studying how Black unfolds, and it embodies values that are very important to me: patience, focus, coherence, drama, and narrative.
One of the most striking things about Black's construction is the way Duke teases us with the "Come Sunday" theme before introducing it in full. There are no less than three "false starts" before we get a complete statement of "Come Sunday" in all its glory.
The first false start is actually barely audible (like due to poor recording conditions, or possibly a damaged master recording) but if you listen closely (headphones help!) you can hear a harmon-muted trumpet making the first statement of the "Come Sunday" melody before trombonist Lawrence Brown joins in at the end of the phrase:
The second "Come Sunday" false start is stated entirely by Lawrence Brown, supported by mysterioso subtone saxophones. Note the diminution of the final descending phrase (in other words, the note values are cut in half so that the figure happens twice as fast) and the deceptive harmonic cadence:
The third and last "Come Sunday" false start sneaks in as an accompanying figure underneath a virtuosic violin passage written for Ray Nance, who was a triple threat in the Ellington orchestra: trumpet, violin, and voice. Once again it's Lawrence Brown with the theme, but notice how the melody is varied this time, and also how it is harmonized with a more elaborate and active chord progression:
Finally, after all of this foreshadowing, we finally arrive at the full 32-bar exposition of "Come Sunday" — but instead of giving it to Lawrence Brown (as you'd expect by this point), Duke gives it to alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, supported by his saxophone section-mates, plus Fred Guy's guitar tremolos and Junior Raglin's bowed bass. It's not just the emotional highlight of the movement, it's one of Johnny Hodges' very finest moments:
Let's look at the first 8 measures of this passage (N.B. this is my best guess! The accompaniment is very faint!):
One of the most striking things about "Come Sunday" is how Strayhornian it is! Though the composition is definitely Ellington's work — Billy Stayhorn's contributions to Black, Brown and Beige are limited to a few sections of Beige — it shows how the influence between the two composers went in both directions. In the first three measures, the root motion of a descending whole step followed by a return to the original chord (Ab7-Gb7-Ab7) is reminiscent of two earlier Billy Strayhorn compositions: "Lush Life" (whose verse begins with a Db-Cb-Db root motion) and "Chelsea Bridge" (which begins Bbmi(MA7) - Abmi(MA7) - Bbmi(MA7)).
Additional, the melody emphasizes the upper extensions of each chord — the 9th and the 13th of the Ab7 in the first measure, the #11th of the Gb7 in the second, the 9th of the Bb7 chord in m.4 and the 9th of the Ebmi chord in m.5 — in a way that seems almost certainly influenced by Strayhorn's own melodic writing. Nonetheless, the character and contour of the melody, and the way it "fully captures the quality and religious fervor of the Negro spiritual" (as Gunther Schuller puts it), are all quintessentially Ellingtonian.
Later in Black, we get a striking harmonization of the "Come Sunday" bridge, with Chauncey Haugton's clarinet wailing out on top of the saxes, driven by a hard-charging rhythm section:
Check out Duke's sly rhythmic phrasing here. I love how in the second measure, he displaces the note that would normally be the pickup so it falls on the downbeat.
As the movement draws to a close, Duke begins to hint at a synthesis between the movement's first theme (called "Work Song") and the "Come Sunday" theme — and once again, it's trombonist Lawrence Brown who does the foreshadowing:
Finally,we get the long-promised juxtaposition of the "Work Song" and "Come Sunday" themes:
That's a pretty great payoff. I am always trying to encourage young composers to try taking contrasting elements from their pieces and layering them on top of each other, just to see what happens! This moment from Black is a classic example of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thematic juxtaposition.
I hope listening to these examples has given you a sense of the varied treatment Ellington gave to "Come Sunday" in its original context. At its core, "Come Sunday" is a gorgeous piece of music that has enduring appeal to a broad range of people: as a jazz standard, as an anthem of the Civil Rights movement, and as a modern-day spiritual. At the same time, it's flexible enough to sustain a broad range of interpretations.
While Ellington never revived Black, Brown and Beige again in its entirety, he did revisit elements from the Black movement, especially "Come Sunday," many times — from the the first studio recording in 1944 to the famous 1958 album featuring Mahalia Jackson to the chorus-and-celeste arrangement for the 1963 theatrical revue My People to the version included in the first Concert of Sacred Music. Each incarnation is unique and it's fascinating to trace which elements from the original are retained and which new ideas are introduced.
What's your favorite recording of "Come Sunday"? What liberties does it take with the original harmonies, rhythms, melody, etc? If this is the tune you're arranging, what direction are you taking it in? How are things going? Any questions about what you've got so far? I'd love to get the conversation going in the comments section, by all means, please chime in.