SUCH SWEET THUNDER—MUSIC OF THE DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA
Jazz, like the United States Constitution, is a living force. The Framers could not envision the forms and colors of speech that would continually, challengingly expand the First Amendmentʼs guarantee of free expression. And jazz, the very spirit of open dialogue, cannot be confined to one era, to one style.
“I hate categories in music,” Duke Ellington told me more than once. “I listen to individuals.”
In Ellingtonʼs own music—which Lorraine Feather celebrates here in her own voice (and lyrics) but with deep knowledge of the utterly distinctive, continually evolving music he created—Duke resisted the very idea of ending what he had composed.
Clark Terry, long a singular and witty presence in the orchestra, said of Duke: “He always likes to make the end of a song sound as if itʼs still going somewhere.”
And thatʼs what jazz is—the sounds, the pulse, of the continuing life force.
Before moving to Lorraine Featherʼs weaving of her lyrics into Ellingtonʼs music, it is clear that only a jazz singer, all the way through her being, could, as a musician, become part of Ellingtonʼs music. As I once said of Lorraine: “She is a musician—not all singers are—and she knows that jazz can be fun, and so is she. Sheʼs really got it.”
For many years, however, in many languages, there have been irascible debates on what qualities define a jazz singer. By my criteria—having been energized by this music for more than half a century—the definition begins with what the wholly original clarinetist Pee Wee Russell said about anybody who finds his or her vocation in jazz:
“A certain group—I donʼt care where they come from—have a heart feeling and a rhythm in their systems that you couldnʼt take away from them, even if they were in a symphony orchestra.”
Lorraine swings! And on ballads, too, there are the rhythms of longing, loss, desire, fulfillment.
But swinging, though essential, must also be embedded with feeling—not just vocal pyrotechnics. And not manufactured emotion, but the kind that comes out of your life, and how much you understand of who you are as you keep changing. In jazz, music is continual autobiography, and it changes as you change.
Also, of course, the singer must have a signature sound—a sound that is at the core of the singerʼs presence, and changes texture with her moods. It also helps if there is wit— the ability to put into your music the ironies of your own life that are mirrored in what you know of other peopleʼs lives. Lorraineʼs perceptive, empathic humor courses through her lyrics as well as her singing.
At this point I have to say, and I never had the temerity to say this to Duke, that in a number of othersʼ attempts to put lyrics to Dukeʼs music, they missed his swift and amused sense, for example, of the unintended consequences of desire. Lorraine has that perception in the stories that are her lyrics. I wish she had been around as a lyricist when Duke was. I think they could have collaborated.
What makes this current collaboration work is not only her musicianship and actual—not fake—sophistication, but that her affinity for Duke Ellingtonʼs music has deep and long roots.
Born in New York, she was born into jazz. Her mother, Jane, had sung with big bands; her godmother was Billie Holiday; and her father was Leonard Feather. He was and
remains one of the most influential writers on jazz, as well as a producer, and something few of us jazz critics can claim—a composer of songs that jazz musicians actually use in their repertory.
Both Jane and Leonard Feather were close to Ellington and his family, and so Lorraine comes to this personal tribute to Duke after having absorbed his nonpareil musical language from childhood.
She also comes to this engaging project with a range of well-honed skills. Lorraine has been a successful actress; learned to interact with all kinds of audiences in all kinds of clubs; has written lyrics for diverse artists; and, with composer Paul Grabowsky, wrote the pleasurable songs for the Disney feature film The Jungle Book 2.
As musicians used to say when validating a colleague, Lorraine has paid her dues. Also, clearly intrigued by challenges, in her 2001 solo album, New York City Drag [Rhombus], she sang and put lyrics—as Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times noted—to “some cherished if occasionally obscure Fats Waller compositions [transmuting them] into wild lyrical delights.” Champlin noted that Fats Waller was a family friend. And so was Duke Ellington.
That set was followed by Café Society [Sanctuary/BMG], in which she set lyrics to classic jazz compositions, including Duke Ellingtonʼs “Creole Love Call” and “Rockinʼ in Rhythm.” Both these sessions received enthusiastic airplay around the country.
Such Sweet Thunder brings all of her history—the complete Lorraine—together. Jazz musicians used to say of a player they admired that he—or she—“tells a story.” This set abounds in stories that, I expect, will connect in varying ways with the personal stories of listeners. She can be as intimate as in three-oʼ-clock-in-the-morning reveries, and as rollicking in spirit and verve as the Ellington brass section.
Indeed, listening to her in “September Rain”—based on Billy Strayhornʼs luminously lyrical “Chelsea Bridge”—I remembered a story Duke told me. “Sometimes,” he said, “when we played a ballad, and Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster moved into a sensuous, longing solo, we could hear a sigh from one of the dancers. And that sigh became part of our music.”
Few singers today could recreate that singular Ellington ambience that brings a listener deep into his own life, dreams and losses, and then swing into the joy of jazz.
And in “Mighty Like the Blues,” she pays deeply deserved tribute to the writer of both the music and lyrics of that enduring song—her father, Leonard Feather. He taught me a great deal about the music that was so essential a part of both our lives.
And now I am indebted to his daughter for the abiding pleasure of Such Sweet Thunder, a testament to the continual regeneration of this music that has become a common language throughout the world about the resiliency—and surprises—of the human condition.
John Coltrane once told me: “This music is the whole question of life itself.” And Charles Mingus: “Iʼm trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason itʼs difficult is Iʼm changing all the time.”
Jazz is indeed the “Such Sweet Thunder” of life itself. And a final grace note about Lorraine: On jazzreview.com, Bill Falconer wrote, “With a Feather lyric, you donʼt just hear, you somehow see!”
NAT HENTOFF Jazz writer for The New York Times, Jazz Times,The New Yorker, The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal