Released: May ?, 1957
“I never heard / so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” A line from Shakespeare that must have struck a chord for the Duke since he used it as the title this stunning Jazz album that takes influence from a multitude of William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Such Sweet Thunder is the type of concept album that music historians, and theorists could spend decades studying, trying to understand why Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s lesser known musical partner, chose the music they did for the different parts of Shakespeare they were trying to represent. Shakespearian experts will leave Such Sweet Thunder with much to talk about, and for those who are less familiar with the works of the Elizabethan playwright the music is good enough to stand on its own without the references.
Duke Ellington’s style of Big Band and Swing Jazz matches extremely well with the Shakespearian texts with which they are meant to represent. These plays and poems meant for the stage, and that have come to be bigger than the playwright could have imagined, are represented with tremendous sounds and virtuosity. Ellington will tone down the volume on some of the more romantic or somber moments of Shakespeare’s work such as Sonnet in Search of a Moor, a call out to Othello, or The Star Crossed Lovers (aka Pretty Girl), but on these songs the volume is high showcasing the larger than life stature of the Shakespearian works. This makes for some incredibly fun moments when Duke turns it up on songs like Such Sweet Thunder (Cleo) and Sonnet to Hank Cinq and uses bombastic sounds to represent the giant figures of Cleopatra and Henry V. The incredible skill level of these compositions never ceases to amaze.
Ellington’s attention to detail, and his ability to give these now familiar literary figures, and works, original and yet familiar musical representations is Such Sweet Thunder’s biggest accomplishment, and an incredibly difficult undertaking. If there are any complaints to be made about with Such Sweet Thunder it’s that there isn’t more of it. Most of the songs on the album range from one and half minutes long to under four and half minutes long, which is understandable considering that the music was written for a large group of musicians to be played, but if the biggest complaint to be made about an album is that you wish there was more then it must have been good.
With Such Sweet Thunder Duke Ellington was able to do something that many would have thought impossible, he was able to take the works of the most famous English writer in the history of the world and make them fresh. Works people have spent their whole lives memorizing, and studying, and Duke took them and he made them seem different and familiar at the same time, and he did it with some really good Jazz too. If there’s anything to be learned from Such Sweet Thunder it might be that the difference between the great artists of old, and the modern artists we take for granted is merely a few hundred years, and the tools they use to create.