Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - The Conny Plank Session

by Rob Taylor Rating:9 Release Date:2015-07-10

This is my second review of a jazz album with Soundblab, and no, I’m not going off on a folly of my own! This was recorded by Conny Plank, at the time a young studio engineer, and later to attract fame as a producer of Krautrockers such as Cluster, Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Guru Guru.

Just as the various takes of ‘Afrique’ on The Conny Plank Session have the kind of exotic mystique evoked by Krzysztof Komeda in Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, so the story of how Plank and Ellington met and recorded together is shrouded in mystery and subtle variations of the legend. What is known, however, is that Ellington booked some time at Rhenus Studio in Cologne, probably in April 1970, to rehearse two tracks, the swinging 'Alerado', and the more experimental/avant garde ‘Afrique’, laying down three alternate takes of each. 

Conny Plank learnt about Ellington’s rehearsal, and offered to record the sessions. This was humbly accepted by the legendary septuagenarian, Duke Ellington. Nothing happened with these recordings until they were discovered by Plank’s son, dusted off, and digitised by sound-engineer Ingo Krauss.  

What’s a little uncertain is just how much of Plank’s authority is stamped on this session. It’s reported that Ellington was in fact very happy with the recording. Why then, do you ask, were these recordings not given official release at the time? Well, it transpires that Wolfgang Hirschmann, the actual sound-engineer and longtime head of the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) big band, knew nothing of these recordings in 1970, and Plank’s reputation was yet to be established. 

In spite of the fact that there are only two compositions on The Conny Plank Session, ‘Alerado’ and ‘Afrique’, the three alternative takes of each reveal something special in the process of Ellington’s music-making. Just as the alternate takes on the estimable Live at the Village Vanguard by John Coltrane and his group revealed new insights in Coltrane's compositions, for instance by replacing saxophone with bassoon, or having Pharoah Sanders add layers of atonal noise, Ellington fascinates by varying the rhythm, so what appears on take one of 'Alerado' as hard swing, becomes slower and groovier, focussing more on the organ runs of Wild Bill Davis on take three. 

Even more enlightening is the introduction of soprano voice on take three of 'Afrique', which is plain eerie and extends a modern jazz piece into the realm of progressive or even space-rock jazz. Like Sun Ra. The vocals on ‘Afrique’ take three can be compared to Annette Peacock’s wild banchee cries, or perhaps Merry Clayton of Rolling Stones’ 'Gimme Shelter' fame, only higher in pitch. To add to the enigma of this session, it may be Conny Plank’s mother adding the vocal!

'Afrique' is the real cooker here. The constant rolling thunder of the tribal drumming, the call and response shifting atonalism for tone and warmth, and all sounding like a groovy, Mancini-esque spy soundtrack, only more adult. Each instrument plays its part front and centre, making fat statements on the theme in a way not dissimilar to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

This will fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in jazz, juxtaposing modernity with traditionalism in a really intoxicating way.

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