I would not be able to single out any Duke Ellington recording as my favorite. But I could probably make a list of my favorites, and high on that list would be "Harlem Air Shaft." It's a piece that has long fascinated me for its seeming adherence to, and subversion of, the conventions of its time. At first hearing, it seems to be a typical big-band riff tune, like "In the Mood" or "Jumpin' at the Woodside." (A "riff," for those who aren't sure, is a short, repeated melodic snippet; think of the saxophone melody of "In the Mood," which is built on a riff repeated five times.) "Harlem Air Shaft," after the introduction, can be heard as nothing more than four riff-based choruses. But Ellington plays with the riff conventions in some inventive ways, and in the process came up with a minor masterpiece.
"Harlem Air Shaft" was recorded by the Ellington band on July 22, 1940, near the beginning of a period of unbelievable genius by Ellington. In the years of 1940 and 1941, it seemed as if every Ellington recording session produced at least two or three masterpieces. The July 22 session resulted in at least one more, "All Too Soon," and the equally brilliant "Sepia Panorama" was recorded two days later. "Harlem Air Shaft" and "Sepia Panorama" were released as two sides of a 78 RPM record - 50 cents well spent, for a record buyer in 1940!
Skip the introduction for a minute, and listen to the first chorus. Muted trumpets play a repeated two-measure riff in harmony, with a few alterations to fit the chord changes. In almost any other band, this trumpet riff would be answered or overlayed with riffs by the saxophone and/or trombone sections. But Ellington's counterpoint to the trumpet riff is not another riff; it's a long-lined unison melody by the saxophone section. The trumpet riff is catchy; the saxophone melody is striking and bluesy. At the bridge, there's a richly harmonized saxophone riff, with Tricky Sam Nanton's vocalized plunger-muted trombone counterpoint.
The second chorus is a dialogue between the saxophones, riffing in harmony, and the solo trumpet of Cootie Williams. It could have been ordinary and predictable, but the three stop-time moments, where the rhythm section stops playing and the saxes sing out, are surprising and arresting. (What did the dancers do?) Ellington's sax riffs are more varied than was usual for the time, and of course, Cootie Williams at his peak is exciting to hear.
There's a new, bluesy riff in the third chorus, played by the trombones in harmony. The saxophones, in unison, fill in the gaps between the trombone riffs with very inventive, constantly changing licks; it's easy to overlook them at first. The bridge has the brass playing irregular, accented chords, with the saxophones again murmuring below. Barney Bigard's clarinet soars over the entire chorus.
The fourth chorus most closely follows standard big-band procedures of the time; volume drops and the brass and saxophones riff together in harmony for sixteen measure in harmony, with Cootie's tightly-muted trumpet dancing over the ensemble. But even here, Ellington is not content to settle for the ordinary - after a two-measure riff that is repeated, he has written a beautiful four-measure answer rather than repeating the riff two more times.
At the bridge, Bigard once again takes over the solo role, playing humorous little near-glissando runs between appearances of a new ensemble riff. But wait - it's not new at all; we've heard it before. It's a harmonized version of what Tricky Sam played in the bridge back in the first chorus. The piece ends with a powerhouse, stabbing brass riff, the saxophones playing a contrasting, more melodic riff (similar to what they played in the third chorus), and Bigard's clarinet wailing above it all.
Throughout all of this, the band plays great drive; the forward motion of "Harlem Air Shaft" is relentless and exciting. And the colors are constantly varied; instrumental combinations change frequently, and the way Ellington uses each section of the band is altered from chorus to chorus. The saxophones are, in some ways, the real stars of the performance; their harmonized sound is just delicious, and their unison riffs are played with great subtlety.
But we skipped the introduction. It's brilliant, but it's only revealed to be so after we've heard the rest of "Harlem Air Shaft." The introduction is a mini-overture; in twelve measures it sums up the rest of the piece. For the first four measure, the saxophones play, over rich brass chords, what we later realize is a slight variation on the trumpet riff from the first chorus. The next four measures don't strictly "pre-echo" anything in the body of the piece, but the saxophone harmonies suggest links with several later spots, such as the saxophone melody in the stop-time portion of the second chorus. The last four measures of the intro begin with a single statement of the trombone riff from the third chorus, followed by a short transition to the first chorus.
It's simple, but brilliant, and almost every detail of the piece is worth our attention. "Harlem Air Shaft" is a big-band riff tune, but a riff tune written by a composer of genius. Go listen to it.