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The Economist JULY 3, 2015 - by J.E.D.
WHEN CONNY MET DUKE
It is the summer of 1970 and a young German studio engineer has heard that one of the titans of American music is at the local studio rehearsing with his orchestra. The septuagenarian jazzman is in the twilight of his career, but shows no signs of slowing down. The somewhat frustrated sound engineer has yet to make his mark. So he approaches the bandleader: can he please record the rehearsals? The answer is yes. He sets up, the band counts in, tape rolls.
Forty-five years later, the results can be heard. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra's The Conny Plank Session, to be released on July 10 by Grönland, documents the almost improbable meeting of two towering figures from different musical genres.
Ellington was touring, composing and recording furiously. He had debuted New Orleans Suite in 1970 and recorded a live album in Britain. July found him on a European tour. On July 9, the day before a solo concert in Düsseldorf, Ellington took his orchestra into Rhenus Studio in Cologne. "He would constantly be writing, up to the point of the show, and sometimes debut [new pieces] on stage without rehearsing them," says Paul Ellington, the great man's grandson. "And he was always experimenting with different types of musical genres and forms."
The assistant engineer at Rhenus, Konrad "Conny" Plank, had developed a taste for American jazz through troop entertainments on nearby American military bases. In the late 1960s, he had recorded German jazz bands, beat groups and avant-garde rockers bubbling forth from the counter-culture at studios like Westdeutscher Rundfunk. "In 1970, he was about to become a producer," his son Stephan says, but he was disappointed in his recordings. "He was always thinking he did something wrong because he didn't get the sound right."
Plank trained his microphones on Ellington and his orchestra as they performed Afrique and Alerado. Ellington was still finessing the pieces, changing soloists, making adjustments and variations, and adding a vocalist to one take of Afrique. Two songs, with three takes each, reveal hidden possibilities and showcase Ellington as a restless composer and arranger. Plank's unfussy recordings are clear and precise, devoid of dust and crackle or any evidence of the production trickery of the early '70s.
Wild Bill Davis, the organist, and Cat Anderson, a trumpeter, take standout solos on the swinging Alerado, a Davis composition. The more adventurous, abstract Afrique is distinguished by a tom-tom beat that serves as a foundation for various improvisations. Those with a bit of imagination can hear the same driving repetition in Afrique as in the motorik beats of "Krautrock".
Later in his career, Plank went on to produce recordings for now-legendary underground German groups such as NEU!, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, La Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk - groups that define the Krautrock genre. His credits also include albums for Eurythmics, Devo, The Scorpions and Ultravox. Often recording in his home in Hütchsenhausen, Plank experimented with electronics and tape loops and later emerged as a recording artist in his own right.
Michael Rother, who worked with Plank as a solo artist and as a member of Kraftwerk, NEU! and Harmonia, attests to the producer's role in pushing German rock forward. "There wasn't anyone like Conny Plank, with that mixture of creativity and willingness to go into risks, who was interested in working with these crazy experimental guys that were looking for something different and new with no certainty of financial success."
Plank died in 1987, but not before passing on the Ellington story. Stephan says his father was nervous about playing back the session to Ellington. But the composer told him, "Young man, you're doing a good sound." The success of the session had a profound influence on him. "My father had a revelation. It sounded good. He wasn't doing anything wrong. For him, it was one of those transformative moments in your life, when you discover you're good at what you're doing. It was his diploma."
The tape subsequently went unheard. After his mother's death in 2005, Stephan inherited his father's studio and library of tapes. He was nosing through the archives looking for Krautrock rarities worthy of release when he came upon the Ellington session.
In critical circles, few producers enjoy the status afforded to Brian Eno. But it was Plank's aesthetic that directly inspired Eno's ballyhooed Berlin trilogy with David Bowie. Hearing that moment of recognition from which Plank drew so much confidence is a unique experience. Recording geniuses must start somewhere.