Arranging Ellington: Look to the Source — "Almighty God"

Attention arrangers: the submission deadline for the Arranging Ellington project is rapidly drawing near! There is nothing quite like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing a bit more vigorously — as Duke was fond of saying, "Without a deadline, baby, I wouldn't do nothing!"

So, you have until December 15 to submit your arrangement of "Come Sunday" or "Almighty God." During the next few days, you can continue to share ideas and ask questions in the Work in Progress thread. When you're ready to submit, post your final score and audio to the Final Submissions thread — just make sure you get it in under the wire!

I'd also like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the excellent contributions people have been making to the discussion. Ben Zucker posted some excerpts from his arrangement-in-progress of "Almighty God" and offered his thoughts on the connection between religious transcendence and the jazz avant-garde of the late 1960's. Michael Conrad posted his transcription of a harmonically daring passage from Part 2 of the Newport Jazz Festival Suite, "Blues to Be There." Dan O'Brien posted an insightful analysis of the remarkable, haunting "Come Sunday" arrangement from the first Concert of Sacred Music. There have also been great conversations about the conceptual differences between arranging and composing, classic 4-horn or 5-horn records, and the contrary motion reharmonization used in the Adderly/Zawinul version of "Come Sunday."

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Last week, we looked at how Ellington treated "Come Sunday" in its original context as the "spiritual theme" from the larger work Black, Brown, and Beige. Today we're going to cast our eye on "Almighty God" from the Second Sacred Concert.

Unlike the original Concert of Sacred Music, which consisted primarily of material drawn from 1943's Black, Brown and Beige and New World A-Coming, and from Ellington's 1963 Chicago stage revue My People, the Second Sacred Concert consists of entirely new music, conceived together as a suite. The themes introduced in the first section, "Praise God," are expanded and developed at length in the final movement, "Praise God and Dance."

This was the first major compositional project Ellington would undertake following the death of his writing and arranging companion, Billy Strayhorn. The extended middle section, "It's Freedom" is dedicated to Strayhorn and the "four major moral freedoms" Duke attributed to him: "Freedom from hate, unconditionally. Freedom from self-pity. Freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might benefit someone else more than it would him. And freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he was better than his brother." The subtext here is powerful: as an openly gay man, Strayhorn plainly did not enjoy freedom from the hatred of others. It's a bold move for Ellington to include sexual freedom within his universal paean to liberty — especially in the context of an explicitly religious work to be performed in places of worship.

The featured singer for the Second Sacred Concert is the Swedish soprano Alice Babs. She was a teenage sensation and youth culture icon in her come country, a star of film and TV and a finalist at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest. Her classically-informed tone and wide, fast vibrato take some getting used to (it is a far cry from Esther Marrow's authentic gospel inflections from the first sacred concert!) but Duke loved the ease with which Babs was able to navigate the twisting, challenging intervals of "Heaven" and "T.G.T.T."

Like those, "Allmighty God" is also a feature for Alice Babs. After a brief intro, she delivers the initial 32-bar AABA-form song, supported only by drums, a relentless and virtuosic perpetuum mobile bass line (praise be to the rock-solid Jeff Castleman!) and just a few spare plinks from the maestro's piano. Like many of Ellington's melodies in the Second Sacred Concert, "Almighty God" is notable for its unexpected chromatic inflections:

While Duke's brief piano intro is in the phrygian mode, the first bar of the A section clearly establishes the key of D minor, making the major third (F#) in the melody on the downbeat of the second bar a real eyebrow-raiser. But from there, it leaps down to (and holds on) an even more surprising chromatic alteration, the b9th (Eb). The leap up the octave at the end of the third bar is similarly unforeseen — a bit of word-painting on the word "above." It gives extra weight to the unusual harmonic motion, from G9 (the IV chord) to Bb9 (the bVI chord), and pushes the second half of the melody into a more intense register.

In the sixth bar, we get a dramatic descending arpeggio, outlining an upper structure D minor triad against the Ab7 harmony, highlighting some juicy upper extensions and alterations: the 13th, #11th, and b9th. Check out the bass line here too: the alternating triads a tritone apart (Ab major and D major) are an inspired touch!

The end of the first A section again plays with chromatic alterations, with the C natural on "me" setting up the unresolved A# leading tone on "love." The second A section ends with a repeat of the descending arpeggio from the previous measure, but this time cadences in the relative major (F major).

The bass line is also worthy of serious investigation: the carefully calibrated balance between rising and falling figures, the use of register to create timbal variety, the way it clearly establishes each harmony while maintaining its own internal melodic flow — this is really a phenomenal bit of writing. It's practically a mini-concerto for Jeff Castleman, who executes it with unerring time and intonation.

(N.B. the published lead sheet you were provided has a few inaccuracies in the bass line, especially in the bridge, so be sure to check it against the recording. The examples attached to this post are accurate to the best of my ability, but if I've missed something, corrections are most welcome!)

The bridge takes us back to D minor by way of an implied II-V progression, but Duke's melodic twist here is the leap up to the natural 6th degree (B nat.) going into the third bar. This move is prepared by the inclusion of Bb in the first measure of the bridge. In the last two bars, the bass line implies a relative major chord in first inversion (F/A) proceeding directly to V7 (A7), which is emphasized melodically by the rise from C natural to C#.

After the vocal chorus, we get a melodic paraphrase from Russell Procope on solo clarinet (played entirely in the instrument's lower register), supported by occasional brass pads, while Babs weaves in and out with some wordless obbligato lines. If you are arranging "Almighty God," I'd encourage you to listen closely to how Procope phrases the melody here. These are exactly the kinds of rhythmic variations you'll want to put "in the ink" of your arrangement if you have multiple instruments playing the melody together. It's a drag to hear charts with leaden, unmusical "Real Book phrasing," but that seems to be a common affliction among younger writers. It's important to sit up and pay attention when master interpreters of melody are showing you how it's done!

After a four-bar transitional passage from the rhythm section, the choir enters in the new key of F minor; what had been the relative major (F) now becomes the new tonic minor. Meanwhile, Babs belts out some high coloratura lines (edging towards dog-whistle territory) supported by long tones in the saxes and stabs in the brass, including some tasty staccato "buttons" from Chuck Connors' bass trombone. Ellington didn't add a bass trombonist to his band until late in his career, but is clearly having fun with it here.

The piece closes with a short bass cadenza on Ab major — the relative major of F minor and a tritone away from where we began.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, "Almighty God" is a deep cut in the Ellington discography. There have been hardly any recordings of this tune by other artists (here is one by Jay Hoggard, and another by Thilo Wolf) so the field is basically wide open for you to put your own stamp on this material. But as you do, I'd like to encourage you to think carefully about which elements in the original recording you'd like to retain, isolate, expand, highlight, develop, modify, etc. You want to make sure your arrangement is fully informed by close study of the source. Even if you end up making choices that are a radical departure from the original, they will always sound more convincing if you know exactly what you are departing from.

Good luck and happy arranging! I look forward to hearing from you about where you are all going with this material, so remember to post your ideas, sketches, questions, et cetera to the Work in Progress thread.

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Comment by Zack Sulsky on December 11, 2013 at 2:24pm

Hi Darcy,

Thanks for sharing your analysis. It's interesting to think about "Almighty God" being composed in the wake of Strayhorn's passing. The composition certainly bears many of the stylistic markers of Strayhorn -- the unexpected chromaticism and prominent use of extensions in the melody that you mentioned certainly sound like Strayhorn to me.

I can't wait to hear how our student arrangers interpret this piece!

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