Duke Meets Plank

A great, if not the greatest Krautrock engineer recording Duke Ellington in 1970 at Rhenus Studios in Cologne Germany? Sounds implausible, some fevered dream if not outright fiction. And yet it briefly happened. Upon hearing the results, one enthusiastic Kraftwerk fan was heard to intone, “it’s like Chaucer and Galileo were in the same room.”

Conny Plank, who began his career in music working for Marlene Dietrich, became a master at multi-track recording and a Svengali at creating the soundscapes that were the bedrock of European electronic music. An advocate for electronic music, his publishing company, Kraut! was the source of the term Krautrock. He worked on a number of Kraftwerk records including Autobahn and is said to have influenced Brain Eno. While any unreleased Ellington is a big deal—and truth be told two tracks from this session were later released but with less than fabulous sound—this is not a huge discovery. This CD features three takes of a pair of tunes, “Alerado” and “Afrique.” Neither tune is a classic but “Afrique,” which would later appear on the 1971 album The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, features a tom tom rhythm (probably from drummer Rufus Jones) and lots of organ from Wild Bill Davis who is the strongest instrumental voice in both tunes. It’s a slow boiling groover with great charts for trumpets and saxophones. Latter day Ellington star, trumpeter Cat Anderson, is the other prominent voice heard here. The band, which in 1970 still had a great saxophone section that included the likes of Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Russell Procope, is its usual precise and well-drilled self in these recordings that are really a taped rehearsal. A wordless vocalist in the final take of “Afrique” goes uncredited.

The only revolutionary thing here is how little Plank does in the booth. Sorry Guru Guru and Os Mundi fans, Plank does not work any studio magic here. Clearly he must have been awed by the great composer and bandleader’s presence because the sound is natural and not manipulated in the least. There is speculation that a pair of matched stereo mikes were used. There is also talk that a malfunctioning tape recorder was used. Whatever the actual circumstances, this is Ellington, mostly unheard until now, and best of all, aural evidence of a chance meeting between two very influential figures from completely different musical worlds. Certainly, one of the oddest discoveries of 2015.

TNtransplant's picture

Yes, an odd recent discovery, but kind of misleading by possibly implying some sort of collaboration -- more likely Ellington taking advantage of studio time to record a rehearsal while shaping a new composition, with Plank engineering. From what I gather the date of this recording is uncertain, but seems to have taken place after Johnny Hodges passed in May 1970.

Bottom line is that this curiosity is relatively minor Ellington given his extensive discography -- unfortunately little which has been made available in higher resolution digital formats, a shame since the Duke was ahead of his time in recording technology-- including an apparent experiment in stereo recording from 1932!!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Your assessment is right on. Took a listen to this on Spotify (I don't need "hi-fi" to judge the musical content of a recording). It won't be joining my rather extensive collection of Ellington.

Those old, 78 RPM, "stereo" Ellington recordings were experimental: Reflections in Ellington (Everybodys 3005). To achieve the stereo effect, two recordings, each monaural and cut separately, had to be played back simultaneously and synchronously. RCA Victor began experimenting with this technique in 1929.

Odd, that the review lists Hodge in the personnel, when he might have been dead. Someone needs to check their facts. Maybe he died before the recording was released.

Stereophile featured a review of an album of guitar players which had Bill Doggett's (Honky Tonk) name on the cover. He didn't play guitar.

TNtransplant's picture

Did a quick Google of the album and then gave it another listen. While perhaps interesting to see how the two pieces evolved over multiple takes, only 'Afrique' warrants repeated listening and the released version on Afro-Eurasian is far superior IMO.

Looking over the online reviews I get the feeling many were attracted by the Conny Plank connection and have little familiarity with Ellington's catalog -- which is kind of scary for anyone attempting to critique any music in the Jazz Tradition. (And if you're writing anything about jazz and don't realize that is a reference to the seminal Martin Williams book, please stop what you're writing and immediately read it before typing another word!)

I really don't see why this is being described by some as some sort of momentous musical meeting of mythic proportions. (Oh, and before I'm accused of being out of touch in my understanding of the role of Conny Plank in "krautrock" ... in a former life I was on the radio playing Neu, Cluster, Harmonia, Heldon, Klaus Schulze, T Dream, etc.when the music was first released in the 70's before apparently being adopted by recent hipsters)

BTW Osgood - I might be wrong, but think 1 channel of the early stereo experiments actually came out in limited issue 33.3 rpm transcriptions, not 78(?) which accounts for the extreme rarity of both the issued and "test" version discs with the other channel. I do have the original Everybodys vinyl release of the two 1932 "stereo" medleys but just looked back to realize they were also included in the 1999 Centennial collection of complete RCA recordings if you have that. It's incredible to listen to the released 1 channel version immediately followed by the recreated 2 channel version.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Am partial to James Lincoln Collier's book "Ellington," which some have termed "controversial." Frankly, never understood why.

Couldn't find any book by Martin Williams on Ellington, just a general jazz book.

dalethorn's picture

I ordered it from Amazon - 4 reviews, 2 at 5 stars and 2 at 4 stars. There were some good comments on Amazon about the missing or incorrect information in the liner notes. Regardless, I have lots of odds and ends in my collection, and hopefully this will merit a lot of replays.

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You- RB!

dalethorn's picture

The CD arrived. The Afrique takes are recorded very wide - not the best for headphones, as most modern recordings are. Usually I hear that extreme separation of left-right in 1950's or early 1960's tracks, but there it is recorded in 1970. The Alerado takes sound better in that regard, but it might not have been intentional on the part of the engineers or mixers. The sound quality and fidelity are quite good though - no disappointment there. I wouldn't recommend this for an Ellington neophyte - the Indigos CD's are a much better bet for beginners, although much of the Indigos sounds dated compared to most late 1950's jazz that I'm familiar with.