By 1970, thirty year old Conny Plank was already well on his way to establishing a reputation as one of the most innovative producers in Germany. He had come a long way since his early days working as Marlene Dietrich’s sound engineer. 

When multi-track recording was introduced, Conny spent time investigating its sonic possibilities. Soon, he was able to create dramatic productions through the use of effects. These production techniques would become part and parcel of Conny’s production style. Especially, when he worked on two of his musical loves.

Electronic music and soundscapes were two of Conny’s passions. He was an early advocate of electronic music’s possibilities, and throughout his career, worked with some of  the leading lights of Germany’s electronic scene, including Kraftwerk and Cluster.

Indeed, in 1969 Conny Plank was asked to engineered Kluster’s debut album Klopfzeichen. It was released in 1970, the same year Conny Plank was asked to work with one of the legends of music, Duke Ellington.

To this day, an element of mystery surrounds the background to how Duke Ellington and His Orchestra came to work with Conny Plank. Several theories abound. One theory was that Wolfgang Hirschmann, a sound engineer, and onetime leader of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk big band, asked Conny to take charge of the sessions. However, when Wolfgang Hirschmann was asked about this, he was unaware of the sessions. That however, isn’t the only mystery surrounding The Conny Plank Session, which will be released by Grönland Records on 10th July 2015. 

There’s even some debate about when the recording took place. Although the master tape is dated April 1970 this has been disputed. Those who chronicle Duke Ellington’s discography, date the sessions as July 1970. Most likely, this is because Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were touring Europe in July 1970. However, in the archives, there’s nothing to suggest Duke Ellington and His Orchestra recorded The Conny Plank Session at Rhenus Studio, Cologne, in July 1970. This would suggest that the session took place sometime in April 1970. By then, The Duke was approaching veteran status. He had come a long way since his early days in music.

Duke Ellington was born into a middle class family in Washington D.C. on April 29th 1899. Growing up, Duke Ellington learnt to play the piano. Before long, he was a prestigious talent. It was no surprise that in 1914, aged just fifteen, Duke Ellington made his professional debut. This was just the start of a long and successful career. Bandleader, composer, pianist and political activist, Duke Ellington did it all.

He moved to New York in the early twenties. In 1923, Duke Ellington formed his own orchestra in 1923. He played at the Cotton Club during the twenties. In the thirties, Duke Ellington and his orchestra toured the world. Right up to his death in 1974, Duke Ellington was still leading his orchestra. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Duke Ellington.

After the Second World War, music changed. Duke Ellington’s orchestra was perceived as the music of the past. Crooners were the future. Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford were flavour of the month. This was just the start of a slump in Duke Ellington’s popularity. At one point, Duke Ellington’s income as a songwriter and performer was subsidising his orchestra. Thing would get worse before they got better.

During the early fifties, Duke Ellington’s orchestra lost some of its top musicians. Not long after this, Duke Ellington’s music was seen as old fashioned. Bebop was the future. Duke Ellington’s popularity suffered. Things got so bad that he had to scale back his orchestra. However, in 1956, Duke Ellington became the comeback King.

At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Duke Ellington made his comeback. Ironically, two of the songs at the centre of his comeback were old songs. Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue had been part of Duke Ellington’s show since 1937. They were often overlooked. Not at the Newport Jazz Festival. This was just part of an explosive set that introduced Duke Ellington to a new generation of music fans. Such was the effect of Duke Ellington’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, that Duke Ellington made the front page of Time magazine. Following the Newport Jazz Festival, there was a revival of interest in Duke Ellington’s career.

Right through the rest of the fifties and early sixties, Duke Ellington recorded a number of film soundtracks. This included 1957s Such Sweet Thunder, 1959s Anatomy Of A Murder and 1961s Paris Blues. For Duke Ellington, his career was back on track.

Especially when he started working with some of the current biggest names in jazz. Duke Ellington worked with Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Duke Ellington was seen as part of jazz’s past, the new generation of jazz musician’s embraced him. They enjoyed working with one of jazz music’s legends. Duke Ellington still had plenty to offer jazz music.

This became apparent in 1963. This was the hundredth anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that all slaves in the ten rebel states would be free. Duke Ellington was determined that this date should be celebrated. However, America in 1963 was a troubled country.

Racism was still rife in parts of America. So was poverty and conflict. Then there were the problems America were encountering abroad. Tensions were rising between East and West. The Cold War was at a crucial juncture. Then there was the war in Vietnam. A generation of Americans were losing their lives in Vietnam. For many people, there wasn’t much to celebrate. However, Duke Ellington wasn’t going to let the centenary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation passed unnoticed.

To celebrate what was one of the most important dates in America’s history, Duke Ellington wrote My People, a stage play that celebrated President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The soundtrack to My People was released in 1963. Despite being an important musical document, commercial success eluded The Duke. So, he spent much of the sixties touring and recording the occasional album.

Throughout the rest of the sixties, Duke Ellington seemed to be on a never ending tour. He seemed to spent months circumnavigating the globe with his orchestra. Still, albums were being released in The Duke’s name. 

Many of the albums released, were live albums. It seemed that whenever Duke Ellington played live, the tapes were running. Many live albums were released, and would be released long after Duke Ellington’s death in 1974. Still, though, Duke Ellington found time in his busy touring schedule to enter the studio.

By the second half of the sixties, studio albums were becoming something of a rarity for Duke Ellington. An exception was The Popular Duke Ellington. It was released in 1966, but neither  excited critics nor record buyers. Although The Duke was a popular live draw, some thought he had lost his Midas touch in the studio.

In 1967, Duke Ellington released Soul Call and The Far East Suite. They were an improvement on albums like The Popular Duke Ellington. Both albums saw The Duke trying to move with the times. Maybe there was still life in The Duke?

During the remainder of the sixties, Duke Ellington spent much of his time touring. He collaborated with Frank Sinatra on Francis A. and Edward K. It was released in 1968. Tellingly, The Chairman Of The Board took top billing. For Duke Ellington, who had spent fifty-four years as a professional musician, this must have been galling. However, by 1968 Frank Sinatra was a bigger draw than The Duke.

Despite this, when Duke Ellington celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1969, the great and good of music paid tribute to one of jazz’s leading lights. A concert was held to celebrate The Duke’s seventieth birthday. It was released in 1970 as Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert. That was the year Duke Ellington recorded The Conny Plank Session in Cologne.

It was in April 1970, that Duke Ellington and His Orchestra arrived at Rhenus Studio, Cologne. The Duke and his entourage were welcomed by one of German music’s rising stars, Conny Plank. He was responsible for recording Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. They recorded a total of six tracks, three takes of Alerado and three takes of Afrique. They’ve lain in Conny Plank’s vaults since the recording session in April 1970. That’s until they arrived at Grönland Records’ offices.

Having listened to what became The Conny Plank Session, Grönland Records realised they had struck gold. This was very different from the unissued recordings of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra that occasionally come to light. Most of them are live recordings. The remainder, are mainly outtakes or Duke Ellington and His Orchestra noodling. Not here. 

Somehow, Conny Plank had managed to get the best out of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. He had encouraged, cajoled and charmed a performance out of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. It was as if Conny Plank had managed to transfer Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s famous live sound onto the master-tape. Somehow, Conny had gotten one of the last great unreleased recordings of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. They make their debut on the much anticipated The Conny Plank Session, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening The Conny Plank Session is Alerado (Take 1). It’s the first of three takes of Alerado. Straight away, grizzled horns and a standup bass drive the arrangement along. Meanwhile, washes of organ are added. That’s until the arrangement takes on an understated sound. With just the rhythm section for company, a flute adds the first solo.  Next in the spotlight is the organ. Bold stabs and splashes of organ take centre-stage. Next up it’s the trumpet. It’s panned left by Conny Plank, while the organ is panned right. This ensures the mix is balanced. After the solos, the arrangement becomes a joyous sonic explosion. It’s as if The Orchestra have taken to their feet, and added some swing, before taking Take 1 to its joyful crescendo.

Straight away, there’s similarities between Alerado (Take 2) and Take 1. The horns lead the way. They’re aided and abetted by the organ, before a wistful flute is added. Deep down in the mix, subtle bursts of organ can be heard. Then when it’s time for the organ to enjoy its moment in the sun, it’s loud, proud and brash. It’s the polar opposite for the subtle, restrained sound of the horn. As the flute plays, the organ is reigned in, ensuring it doesn’t overpower the horn. Then it’s time for The Orchestra to kick loose. They seem to savour this moment. From 2.38 to 3.15 they sweep dramatically, but elegantly along. High kicking horns, the rhythm section and the organ unite. After that, The Orchestra plays within itself. There’s a subtlety to their playing as the arrangement meanders along, instruments dropping in and out, enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

On Alerado (Take 3), the tempo is dropped. It’s noticeable from the opening bars.  Mostly, it’s the same instruments that play. This includes horn and rhythm section. They play slowly, thoughtfully and within themselves. Noticeably absent is the organ. That’s until it plays a supporting to a sultry horn. Gradually, stabs of organ make their presence felt. Soon, they’re taking centre-stage as the tempo rises. As the organist improves, the rhythm section up the tempo. That’s the signal for the horns to blaze in. Soon, they’re soaring about the arrangement. Later,  they become restrained as the plucked bass helps power the arrangement along, as Duke Ellington and His Orchestra reinvent Alerado.

The three versions of Alerado are quite different. On the three different takes, the instruments are switched round. They’re used in different ways and at different times. Then on Alerado (Take 3), there’s a noticeable change in tempo at the start. That’s a curveball. Later, The Orchestra are let off the reigns, as they continue to reinvent  Alerado. They do the same with Afrique.

Unlike the other two takes of Afrique, Afrique (Take 1) is seven minutes long. From the get-go, the track has a much more contemporary sound. Duke Ellington stabs urgently at his piano. Meanwhile, thunderous drums provide a pulsating heartbeat. Washes  of organ give way to horns that growl menacingly. It’s as if firing off a warning shot. Soon, their sound changes, becoming sultry and slinky. Still, thunderous drums punctate the arrangement. So do bursts of braying horns and The Duke’s piano. By now, it’s as if The Orchestra are incorporating elements of free jazz, and thanks to the organ, soul jazz. Washes of cascading organ are fired off, and sit well with the bursts of grizzled horns and the discordant piano. Playing a crucial part, are the Afro-beat inspired drums. Their distinctive and thunderous heartbeat is a masterstroke. Just like the rest of The Orchestra, they play their part in an innovative, genre-defying epic from Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.

Whereas Afrique (Take 1) was seven minutes long, Afrique (Take 2) lasts just over five minutes. Straight away, drums replace the piano. The drums are joined by the organ, and stabs of piano. Braying horns join, before become sultry and slinky. They’ve a vintage sound. Soon, they growl, bray and howl. Still the thunderous, urgent drums pulsate. Later, the horns protest and the organ sounds. It replicates the sound of the horn. While all this is going on, the mesmeric drums provide a backdrop. A scrabbled bass and wistful horn unite. The Duke adds a dark and discordant sounds on his piano, as the arrangement gallops along creating a very different and totally captivating take on Afrique. Especially when it reaches it dramatic crescendo.

Closing The Conny Plank Session is Afrique (Take 3). This take is a similar length to Take 2. However, it’s quite different. The introduction is more like Take 1. Drums gallop along, washes of organ and stabs of piano combine. Then horns growl and bray. Before long, a sultry horn signals the sound of an ethereal female soprano vocal. It ghosts across the arrangement. Soon, the vocal, which many believe came courtesy of Conny Plank’s wife, is transformed into an instrument. She scats, honing and shaping her soaring vocal so it melts into the mix. As it does, grizzled horns, hypnotic drums, plink plonk piano and a scrabbled bass unite. Washes of organ replace the vocal. A horn replies to the organ’s cry. Then the sultry horn signals the return of the ethereal, ghostly vocal. From there, the Orchestra drive the arrangement along, and they continue to push musical boundaries. In doing so, they create what’s without doubt, the most groundbreaking, compelling and dramatic take of Afrique. Partly, that’s thanks to the addition of the vocal, which is was another masterstroke.

Just like the three versions of Alerado, the three takes of Afrique see the track reinvented. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra begin with Take 1, a seven minute epic. It’s a truly tantalising and innovative take. One wonders if this is the definitive version? However, it’s not. Take 3 steals the show. The addition of vocal was a masterstroke. Its ethereal sound, and the way the vocal is transformed into an instrument was an innovative addition. It weaves its way around, and above the arrangement, creating a captivating ethereal sound. This was something the pioneers of free jazz and avant-garde music had been doing for several years. One wonders if this was one of The Duke or Conny Plank’s idea?

While The Duke was quite rightly perceived as one of jazz music’s legends, he had spent much of the sixties touring. Conny on the other hand, was a true innovator, who was always one step ahead of the musical pack. He wasn’t just interested in the music of the past and present, he was interested in creating the music of the future. 

Given Duke Ellington’s last few studio albums had been neither successful nor particularly innovative, Conny had the chance to help rejuvenate The Duke’s career. To do this, he combined music of the past, the present and the future. Elements of Afro-beat, free jazz, jazz, soul jazz and swing were combined with avant-garde and experimental music. Especially on the three takes of Afrique. It’s as if Conny Plank encouraged The Duke to head in new musical directions. 

In doing so, Conny Plank coaxed, cajoled and encouraged a series of spellbinding performances from Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Conny takes The Duke out of comfort zone, and encourages him to head on musical voyage of discovery. To do that, Conny charmed, encouraged and flattered Duke Ellington. He did whatever it took to get the best performance from The Duke. Once The Conny Plank Session was complete, Conny let Duke Ellington hear the fruits of their labour.

As Conny and Duke Ellington listened to the six tracks, the veteran jazz musician was enthralled. He complemented Conny for his work. Somehow, he had captured Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at their best. It was one of the last great recordings The Duke made. Sadly, however, Conny and The Duke never worked together again.

Whether the tracks on The Conny Plank Session, which which will be released by Grönland Records, on 10th July 2015, were meant to be the start of an album by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, we’ll that is unclear. Information is scarce about The Conny Plank Session. What’s clear is that the session made a big impression on both men.

By the time Duke Ellington left Cologne, Conny Plank had made a big a big impression on The Duke. Sadly, Duke Ellington would only live another four years. He died in 1974. However, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra recording career enjoyed something of a renaissance. 1971s The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and 1972s Latin American Suite saw a return to form from The Duke. Maybe Conny Plank had inspired Duke Ellington? 

Conny Plank had certainly learnt a lot from The Conny Plank Sessions. He had never worked with a big band. It was a sound he had never experienced, but thoroughly enjoyed. After The Conny Plank Sessions, Conny realised that the performance was everything. He could only produce what was there. This is still true today. It doesn’t matter what technology or equipment a studio has, it counts for nothing if the performance isn’t any good. That stood Conny Plank in good stead right through his career.

Right up until his untimely death in 1987, Conny Plank worked with some of the most innovative bands in the history of music, including Kraftwerk, Cluster, Neu!, Harmonia, Holger Czukay , Brian Eno and The Scorpions. Each and every one of these artists owe a debt of gratitude to Conny Plank, producer, musician and innovator. This also includes Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, who worked with Conny Plank in April 1970, on the long lost, and eagerly anticipated, The Conny Plank Session, which will be released by Grönland Records on 10th July 2015. 



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