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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week -- Ellington at Newport

Kevin Ferguson

If you ever need to increase yourheart rate or heat up a cold room, slap this platter on your turntable, cued to Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.  What begins as a fairly innocuous-sounding  mid-50s redux of mid-30s Ellingtonia takes a sly turn toward crowd-sized ecstasy, masterfully amped up gradually until a near riot ensues.

Here's the story: Live and outdoors, Newport Jazz Festival goers are politely paying tribute to Ellington's brand of symphonic jazz. The Duke announces the next piece, Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue, connected by an "interval" by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. After 4 minutes, Gonsalves begins his interlude. Ellington eggs him on from the piano bench with growls and shouts, accompanied by bassist James Woode and the dead-on swing of drummer Sam Woodyard. 

Jo Jones, drummer for a different band, in an on-stage exit and seen only by the band, is keeping beat with a rolled-up Christian Science Monitor newspaper, much to the amused response from Ellington's men. Suddenly a young woman jumps up in her box seat and dances with abandon. At 6 minutes in, you can hear the audience begin to scream. 

What follows is documentation of a sociological phenomenon. The audience and orchestra and soloist come alive as a self-aware entity.* You can imagine people leaping to stand atop their chairs, shouting, clapping, nodding, and dancing. 10 minutes in, Gonsalves holds a long note, and the crowd revs up to a higher level.

George Avakian, the lucky duck on stage who was recording this peak experience, has noted that the genius of the soloist is how he refrains from overdoing it. As chaos erupts around him, Paul Gonsalves calmly pumps out variation after variation without losing the beat nor the logical thread of his musical ideas. I imagine him like a character in a UPA cartoon, a toe-tapping cool cat unfazed by the Dionysian swarms; rather energized by them.

27 choruses later, Paul hands it off to Duke, who slips into lovely piano splashes before calling on the band to wrap it up, finally, with the Crescendo in Blue. The cops wanted to stop the show, but Duke slowed it all down with ballads, and the glow remains as on this historic date. 

*Other recorded moments like this can be heard on some live Grateful Dead recordings and live Hindustani singer recordings, where poetry can move an audience to exclaim its appreciation aloud. Surely many more such examples must abound.