Planet D Nonet Blues To Be There, A Salute To Duke Ellington

September 1, 1955. But it's hard to keep genius at bay for long. The following twelve months saw the band's fortunes reverse. The latter half of 1955 saw the return of Johnny Hodges, Duke's most important soloist. Billy Strayhorn, whom Ellington called "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine" had pulled away from the orchestra for several years, but the two reunited in time to wax many of their greatest works for Columbia Records, another addition.

Strayhorn's return to active duty illuminated the band's "Open for Business" attitude which led to a series of wonderful inventions. Sam Woodyard took control of the drums. For the next seven years he generated a strong, supple rhythm that propelled the band to new heights. As a bonus, trombonist Lawrence Brown and trumpeter Cootie Williams returned to the fold. The Duke didn't just step out he blasted off, using the July, 1956 Newport Jazz Festival as his launching pad.

Having his band Choc-a-bloc with fresh energy allowed Ellington to forge ahead with new projects, and there were plenty of projects at hand, including Blues in Orbit, Afro-Bossa, The Cosmic Scene, and his first chance to compose a motion picture score. Directed by Otto Preminger, Anatomy of A Murder (1959) was cutting-edge cinema. It handled rape in a frank and adult manner. It was the first major Hollywood release to utilize a bona fide jazz musician to compose the score, an American-African musician to boot. Ellington's score was designed to complement rather than dominate and it was effective.

Duke had a small part, his first acting appearance since 1929. Ellington's off-screen efforts garnered him three GRAMMY's two for composing, and a third for Best Performance by a Dance Band. Although he would score more films Paris Blues [1961], Assault on a Queen [1966] and Change of Mind [1969] Ellington didn't care for film work; it interrupted his touring, which was Ellington's lifeblood. He sent Strayhorn to Ishpeming, Michigan, to observe filming and take notes. Ellington arrived in time to spend two weeks with cast and crew.

Planet D Nonet, helmed by percussionist/Detroit music champion, RJ Spangler, and ace trumpeter James O'Donnell, has been sniffing out neglected Jazz and Blues classics for the past fifteen years. Fletcher Henderson, Buddy Johnson, Sun Ra, and South African Jazz are a few of their many projects. In years past, PD9 crafted a disc of Billy Strayhorn's music, and spent months absorbing Ellington's Cotton Club material. For this adventure, they concentrated on later Ellington material, as Spangler noted. "I felt the last years of Duke's career were very creative and offered little known gems for us to tackle." There is another reason he chose this interval. "I found this project to be very unifying for my band. Some players have a swing era perspective, others are more hard bop oriented. They could all find themselves in this music." Duke Ellington's music has a simple, critical element. It is a keystone of American culture. Younger musicians, generations removed from Ellington's time, continue to "find themselves in his music, " to paraphrase Spangler. We hope you find yourself in Duke's music, too.

-Jim Gallert and Rick Steiger October 2022
Jim can be heard weekly on Jazz 88.3 FM KSDS and is co-author of Before Motown A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60.

Rick Steiger is a sax player/bandleader and longtime record collector and colleague of RJ Spangler's.


1. SPACEMEN Ellington (6:38)
Solos: Charlie Miller, Alex Harding, Tbone
Paxton, Alex Colista (alto), Michael
Zaporski, Trevor Lamb, Sean Perlmutter

2. PIE EYE'S BLUES Ellington (4:18)
Solos: James O'Donnell, Michael Zaporski,
Christopher Tabaczynski (tenor)

3. CHINOISERIE Ellington and Strayhorn (3:22)
Solo: Christopher Tabaczynski (tenor)

4. BLUES TO BE THERE Ellington and Strayhorn (8:27)
Solos: Michael Zaporski on top, Christopher
Tabaczynski (cl), James O'Donnell

5. MOON MAIDEN Ellington (4:04)
Vocal feature for Tbone Paxton
Solos: Charlie Miller & Michael Zaporski

Ellington and M. Gee (3:06)Trombone feature for Tbone Paxton
Solos: James O'Donnell & Christopher Tabaczynski

7. BLOW BY BLOW Ellington (3:40)
Solos: Michael Zaporski on intro,
Christopher Tabaczynski (tenor)

8. TIGRESS Strayhorn (3:43)
Solos: RJ Spangler, Christopher Tabaczynski (tenor),
& Alex Colista (sop)

9. ALMOST CRIED Ellington (2:28)
Feature for James O'Donnell (trumpet)

10. PURPLE GAZELLE Ellington (2:47)
Solos: Christopher Tabaczynski (cl), James O'Donnell, Charlie Miller,
Christopher Tabaczynski (tenor)

11. WAY EARLY SUBTONE Ellington (3:34)
Solos: Alex Colista (alto), Alex Harding

12. TAKE THE A TRAIN Strayhorn (5:04)
Vocal feature for James O'Donnell
Solos: Michael Zaporski & James O'Donnell

13. U.M.M.G. Strayhorn (2:58)
Solos: Charlie Miller, Goode Wyche III (bari)

14. BONGA Ellington (4:26)
Solos: Charlie Miller, James O'Donnell, RJ Spangler

15. MOONBOW Ellington (3:16)
Solos: Michael Zaporski, Alex Colista(sop), Michael Zaporski, Tbone Paxton

16. VIP'S BOOGIE/JAM WITH SAM Ellington (5:31)
Solos: Goode Wyche III (bari), Alex Colista (sop),
Ryan Bills, Charlie Miller, Michael Zaporski, James O'Donnell

Planet D Nonet
Blues To Be There, A Salute To Duke Ellington

Label: Eastlawn Records
Radio Add Date: February 10, 2023
Street Date: February 6, 2023

write your comments about the article :: 2023 Jazz News :: home page