Bringing alive the music of Duke Ellington

Transcriptions by Michael Kilpatrick

Such Sweet Thunder was a composed and released in 1957. On its release the album was highly acclaimed. It was created after Duke Ellington's invitation to perform at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontaria, in 1956. The suite was eventually performed at a subsequent Stratford Festival on 5th September 1957 although it had been recorded and performed live prior to that. A number of the movements, including the title theme Such Sweet Thunder and the luscious feature for Johnny Hodges, The Star-crossed Lovers, remained in the band books and performed many times over the next decade.

The suite contains compositions by both Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The origin of some of the sonnets is not entirely clear as the original scores are not all extant. The sonnets are exactly what they purport to be: sonnets. They have fourteen lines each with the musical equivalent of iambic pentemeter and have the final couplet as the "volta", exactly mirroring the the poetic sonnet form.

Such Sweet Thunder has very little in the way of a downside. Perhaps the only let-down is the waltz "Lady Mac" which Ellington described as showing "how Lady Macbeth had ragtime in her soul". For the protrayal of a woman who persuaded her husband to murder a sleeping king this movement seems rather light-hearted and frivolous! There is little else negative that could be said of the rest of the suite. We have Billy Strayhorn's The Star-crossed Lovers depicting Romeo and Juliet - although this was actually composed earlier but "borrowed" to become part of the suite. Strayhorn's other masterpiece is "Up and Down, Up and Down", portraying the mischevious Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck constantly bewitches the various characters making them fall in and out of love with each other numerous times. Strayhorn portrays this through the use of more than a dozen different pairings of instruments throughout the piece, and with a trumpet solo (Clark Terry) representing Puck and employing half-valve technique to utter the phrase "Lord, what fools these mortals be" to bring the music to a close. To depict the manner in which Hamlet feigned madness in order to determine if his uncle had indeed killed his father the kink, Duke Ellington penned the quirky yet powerfully swinging Madness In Great Ones, a cacophony of oddities that ends in a gibbering of stratospheric wimpers from Cat Anderson on trumpet.

Some of the movements of Such Sweet Thunder can be challenging to the amateur musician. Furthermore, the suite requires a violinist for Up and Down, Up and Down and a screech trumpeter for Madness In Great Ones. To some extent the Sonnets could almost be approached as classical music. There is almost no improvisation and although in the jazz idiom they each have specific demands. Sonnet for Caesar, for example, has a percussion part that in no way resembles any form of jazz beat and a clarinet solo line that would likely not benefit from any attempt to "jazz it up". I have been rehearsing the suite with my own orchestra since September 2013 and have held one rehearsal without the trumpet section in order to go through the sonnets and The Telecasters. I have so far been pleased with the progress on Madness In Great Ones and Lady Mac and am hoping that our first successful performance of the entire suite will be in March 2014.