Song of the Day: Duke Ellington “Limbo Jazz”
Duke Ellington, collaborating with tenor sax titan, Coleman Hawkins (a player who was best known for his long history with the Duke‘s chief big band-leading rival, Count Basie) creates a swinging vaguely Latin masterwork on “Limbo Jazz”. While the song initially feels a bit like a jam, the Ellington band brings some clever, minimalist charts that flesh out the melody and create harmonic interest. Ellington‘s right hand saxman, Johnny Hodges, proves to be formidable counterpoint to Hawkins‘ own brash style, creating a dynamic similar to that which Hawkins used to enjoy with Lester Young in the famous Basie bands of the 20’s and 30’s. The net effect, while successful on its own musical terms is a fascinating look at what might have been had Hawkins joined Ellington instead of Basie: a glimpse into an alternate jazz universe if you will.
The song itself is deeply infectious, driven by Ellington’s piano and vocal scat singing. Ellington was working with a smaller group here (by his standards) of 8 musicians, but despite this, the arrangements feel incredibly full. The piano quickly locks in with the vocalization, drums and bass building a rock solid and swinging foundation for the soloists to really stretch out over. Hodges and Hawkins are clearly in a playful mood and having a blast. They form a formidable front line along with Harry Carney (sax), Lawrence Brown (trombone) and Ray Nance (trumpet) all of whom also turn in phenomenal solos of their own.
The collaboration occurred on the 1963 Impulse Records LP, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins. Ellington only did one other record for Impulse, but it was also something of a jazz classic: an unlikely collaboration with the indomitable John Coltrane.