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Duke Ellington: "Cotton Tail"

David Rickert By

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"Cotton Tail features one of Webster's best solos, and also one of the greatest ever recorded. Gunther Schuller writes that Webster's solo "finds a remarkable balance between a whole world of musical ideas: swinging eight-note phrases interspersed with long and expressive held notes, some of these embellished with passionate vibratos and shakes, tonal colorations ranging from soft hues to hot and raspy timbres, all a rich mixture of the predictable and unpredictable. To the listener, it comes across as a solo of remarkable logic and craft, deviating from the established changes, yet melodically making sense. It has become a cliché to say that a solo tells a story, but Webster achieves just that: a commanding introduction, the development of key phrases, the build to a climax, all of which has a distinct narrative quality to it. Surprisingly, it was nailed in one take.

After a brief stride piano solo by Ellington, the remainder of the tune features the high-powered riffing that Ellington's band excelled at; as Mark Tucker says, "the orchestra could roar ahead like an express train and stop on a dime. Powered by Blanton and Greer, the band builds in intensity to a dissonant climax, yet with an extraordinary control of dynamics, before a recapitulation of the main theme.

Coda

"Cotton Tail was, at the time, a startlingly modern composition, an example of modern jazz before there was ever such a term. The beboppers of the forties in particular were influenced heavily by the record's angular melody, tricky structure, and advanced harmonic theory. "Cotton Tail emphasizes ninths and flatted fifths, two notes that in the future would be important to the development of the bebop vocabulary and fit in with the maverick rule-breaking of established musical ideas that Parker and Gillespie would make their specialty.

But perhaps more importantly, "Cotton Tail represented a new approach to composition that included improvisation as a key element. Ellington developed his melodies not just as songs; he also carved out room to showcase his band members. "Cotton Tail is as much of a blowing tune as he ever wrote, and an up-tempo number clearly not intended for dancing. It helped shape a new role for jazz that was beginning to emerge during the Swing Era: jazz didn't have to be music for jazz dancing, it could exist for its own sake. Soon jazz would alter drastically, becoming more complex and artful, and its function would depend on a listening audience that was willing to go along for the ride. While "Cotton Tail was merely a blip on the radar for Swing music fans, plenty of musicians absorbed what it had to offer. Leave it to Ellington to be ahead of the pack.

Sources:
Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.


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