“Reflections in D” (1953) Duke Ellington; and (1978) Bill Evans

“Reflections in D”

Composed by Duke Ellington

Recorded by Duke Ellington for Capitol on April 13,1953 in Los Angeles.

Duke Ellington, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass.

The story and the music:  “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it, not how does it come to you. Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you. The art of Picasso won’t come to you. Shakespeare . . . You have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.” Wynton Marsalis, quoted in Ken Burns’s Documentary on Jazz.

I completely agree with Wynton Marsalis in this statement because I have lived what he speaks of. Now that I have achieved a certain maturity, I have come to enjoy many works of art that as a younger person, I did not enjoy, and didn’t understand, even on the most elementary level. This certainly applies to the music of both Duke Ellington and Bill Evans.

As a callow teen-aged boy, I was aware of Ellington’s music, but largely baffled by it. It took me a long time, a lot of listening, and a lot of reading about Duke and his music before the light of appreciation began to shine, even dimly. It was and it remains a process of discovery. Even now, I do not like everything Duke did musically, though I now have the resources to try to understand and/or to come to a liking of some of his more offbeat pieces. I can say the same things about the music of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. Nevertheless there are some pieces by both of these artists that appealed to me immediately on the first hearing, and I can’t explain why. The introspective “Reflections in D” is one such piece.

I first heard Duke Ellington’s recording of “Reflections in D” soon after I purchased the Capitol LP reissue which contains it, Duke Ellington…Piano Reflections, probably around 1980. It was one of the relatively few pieces of music that has ever simply stopped me in my tracks. The same thing happened when I acquired the Bill Evans Warner Brothers LP Bill Evans…Further Conversations, which contains Evans’s brilliant performance of it, and listened to how he refashioned it.

There is something else that will always link Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and “Reflections in D” in my mind: the deep regret I have for missing both of these jazz giants perform in-person. Despite the fact that I never saw either of them perform live, I tried to see both of them. In early 1974, I received notice that Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were coming to Blossom Music Center some time during the upcoming summer. Blossom is the lovely, outdoor summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, and it is located near my home in northeast Ohio. Although I was still in school and working to try to save enough money to get through my last year, I purchased a ticket well in advance of the Ellington appearance at Blossom, probably in February or March. I looked forward eagerly to seeing and hearing the legendary Duke, who was then approaching his 75th birthday. I had read that Duke had had some apparent health issues late in 1973, but he was still touring in early 1974. My anticipation was dashed, and I was saddened when I learned that Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974.

Ellington’s performance of “Reflections in D” is lovely, warm and evocative. His use of bassist Wendell Marshall presaged the appearnce of a number of piano and bass jazz duos many decades later. Interestingly, Ellington has Marshall play only arco (with his bow), subtly and strategically underlining some of Duke’s attractive chords.

In early June of 1980, I had reached the point where I was beginning to understand some of what Bill Evans was doing in his piano playing. I found myself in New York with a friend who was amenable to going to the Village Vanguard to hear the Bill Evans Trio, which then included Evans on piano, Marc Johnson on bass, and Joe La Barbera on drums. We showed up in front of the Vanguard well before show time. There was a line of maybe a hundred people outside on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk, and many people were standing on the staircase that descends into the club. We got in line and waited. Eventually about half of the people in line in front of us got in. We didn’t. We had to return home the next day. On September 15, 1980, Bill Evans, aged 51, died. Once again, I was stunned by this tragic news. I knew nothing of the reasons why Bill Evans died. (Bill Evans – Copenhagen, August 1964. Note that he is writing left-handed.)

The background for the creation by Duke Ellington of “Reflections in D” is provided in the liner notes to the wonderful 1995 collection of Duke’s mid-1950s recordings for the Capitol label gathered, remastered and reissued by Mosaic. Those notes were written by Duke’s long-time friend and Ellington biographer Stanley Dance. (The parenthetical comments are mine.) 

“The period during which Duke Ellington and His Orchestra recorded for Capitol (1953-1955) was a difficult one for jazz in general and big bands in particular.The effects of World War II, still felt on the national economy, had been prolonged by the war in Korea. Many of the pre-war venues (where big bands played, usually for dancers), had ceased to exist, and lengthy engagements at those that remained were seldom possible, with the result that arduous one-nighter tours became more than ever a way of life for most musicians in the big bands.Considerable competition was also forthcoming from smaller groups playing in the related rock and R & B idioms. Promoters found that the heavy beat these groups favored, when strongly amplified,drew crowds of young people in the unlikeliest places, even former garages. The reduced size of these bands constituted a big savings in terms of wages, transportation and hotels (for the bands), so that (lower costs and) more profit for the promoter was assured. 

Restrictions imposed under wartime conditions (including travel preferences on public transport for military personnel, gas rationing, and a crushing amusement tax), had diminished the pre-war popularity of dancing, and television now offered alternative entertainment in the home. A couple of (musicians’ union) recording bans during the previous decade (which most musicians disagreed with), had further boosted the popularity of singers at the expense of instrumentalists. But besides the different forms of competition, changes within jazz itself contributed to the decline of big bands.

Even in the 1940s, there had been a marked tendency toward larger bands, notably in the case of those led by Stan Kenton and Boyd Raeburn (and Ellington). Enlarged instrumentation invited or provoked complex arrangements, which brought about top-heavy, brassy ensembles that failed to swing as well as their predecessors had. Moreover, the ambitions of those (big band musicians) who looked to futures in (radio-TV-film) studios and concert halls rather than dance halls did not include emphasis on swinging, which they no longer viewed as essential. Nor was much consideration given to it by the increasingly influential exponents of bebop, whose fast, vertiginous solos, and slick unison-theme statements were not addressed to dancers.”

Despite Duke’s brilliant recording of “Reflections in D” and a number of other excellent recordings for Capitol, his association with Capitol was a commercial failure. During the time Duke was recording for Capitol, he came as close as he ever would to giving up his band because of a general lack of interest in his music. But he persevered, and by 1956 was at the beginning of an Ellington renaissance, where his popularity around the world would increase greatly. This last golden age of Ellington would continue from the late 1950s until his death, and produce much remarkable music.

“Reflections in D”

Composed by Duke Ellington.

Recorded in late January – early February, 1978 by Bill Evans for Warner Brothers in New York City.

Bill Evans, piano.

Bill Evans’s sublime refashioning of “Reflections in D” immediately reaffirms the beauty of Ellington’s composition, while at the same time imprinting it with Evans’s very personal interpretation. His touch at the piano was as sensitive and expressive as anyone who has ever played the instrument. Everything about this performance is masterful, and deeply affecting.

These recordings were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful composition, and nice essay about it. I think the Bill Evans album might have been “New Conversations”. Bill had lots of those “Conversation” titles. I’d only been familiar with Bill’s version of it from his Piano Jazz interview.

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