To call Duke Ellington or Conny Plank mere legends of their respective branches in the music industry would be a slight to their legacies. Most know Ellington on a by-name basis: a composer whose prowess in the field had seen him become a world-professed father of jazz, having ushered in an era where the genre became much more than another classification of music — an art form equivalent to the finest shows on Broadway, or a Shakespearean script. For Plank, some may not be familiar with the name, but his work as a sound engineer and producer in the industry goes unmatched in terms of influence on the modern day setting. Capable of crafting tremendous electronic orchestras with his mastery of the multi-track recording facility — sonic endeavors that were unthinkable across most of the world during the era — he had become an innovator of electronic and rock music, essentially founding the studio techniques of ’80s popular music.
This makes Plank’s work with Ellington a surprising feat, melding together the talent of two individuals acclaimed for accomplishments vastly different when directly contrasted against one another – Ellington, recognized as an innovator of his time for exceptional compositions in jazz, and Plank, recognized as an innovator of his time for the outstanding production of bands more or less down the lane of progressive rock and electropop like Kraftwerk and the Eurythmics. It comes as even more of a surprise with The Conny Plank Session becoming unearthed 45 years after its inception. While not necessarily rare for pieces of a famous artist’s back catalog to be released decades following their death (just look at what Prince has in store for the 2010s), it is a special incredulity when it comes to the unearthing of work that Ellington had a part in creating. The Duke’s portfolio is so full to its brim that there have been literally well over one thousand compositions and recordings with his name stamped on them released to date, making this twilight addition to his collection a particular treat.
Discovered by Grönland Records as a piece of Plank’s estate, the 1970 recordings came at a prime time in the young producer’s career. One could say that Ellington’s kind words had played a part in Plank’s own rise to fame, with this session in particular having acted as the crux towards this elevation after rumors had spread about their secret meeting at Cologne’s Rhenus Studio for the project. Whilst only consisting of three takes each on two separate compositions, it’s in the vibrancy of the performance and the distinctive differences in each that make the record a must-listen. Ellington was acclaimed as an experimenter and a risk-taker as a big band frontman, and his effervescence can be felt in the way that he commands his orchestra across just the first few moments of swing number “Alerado”. He takes on more avant garde footing on “Afrique”, carried primarily by a hearty, tribal beating of tom-tom drums and a heady brass section, with a soprano vocal carrying the intended tone home on the third take.
The Conny Plank Session isn’t just another addition to Ellington’s tremendous catalog of work; it takes its own special spot in music history as a collaboration between a bonafide jazz artist in the evening of his life and an acclaimed innovator of sound engineering just getting started with his. There’s no doubting the effect that the session with the Duke had on Plank, who soon afterward became marked as one the industry’s most acclaimed producers of modern music. Their collective enthusiasm in crafting this piece of work is remarkable, and the music on this track worth a listen for anyone worth their weight in respect for jazz and its place in the art world.