Well, now we know the truth we’ve been waiting half-a-year for. No, not whether or not Don Draper would continue his philandering ways in Mad Men’s third season, but when exactly the season would be set. This is the Sixties we’re talking about—perhaps the most exciting, turbulent, transformative decade in America’s nearly 250-year history. Just think of how our culture changed from 1965, when Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” topped the charts, to 1967, when Sergeant Pepper’s... debuted in the middle of the Summer of Love. We waited on pins and needles to learn just what historical hurricanes would put permanent waves in the impeccably armored domes of the men of Sterling Cooper.
The truth, it turns out, is 1963, and an aroma of dangerous, unthinkable change looms heavy. We know JFK’s assassination is just months away, and it will take much more than a durable London Fog raincoat to insulate Don and his gang from that particular fallout. The distinctive push and pull of the show which lends its aura of intrigue lies in the uneasy paradox between what we learn about the characters and where we know they are unavoidably headed. It is like watching the petty internal dramas of the passengers of a doomed cruise ship when we know that cataclysmic icebergs lie intractably ahead to rattle friend and foe alike, sublimating all in a collective, cathartic grace.
But those trials remain, blessedly, weeks away. For now, we can imagine the staff of Sterling Cooper looking forward to their Fridays, nights out at the theater or the movies, talking about Hitchcock’s The Birds or Stanley Donen’s Charade. Maybe Don takes Betty to see 8 1⁄2 and can’t make heads or tails of it. Maybe Sal walks out of Cleopatra.
In the realm of music, Bob Dylan is just emerging, as is Joan Baez. Jazz is king, and some of the best hard bob of the period flourishes--Donald Byrd's A New Perspective, Dexter Gordon's Our Man in Paris--not yet laid waste by free-jazz impulses and spiritually-progressive “one music” that would arrive only a few years later. With the Beatles is just hitting record shelves, but they aren’t quite the phenomenon yet they will be soon. And of course, the majority of the record buying public still shops in the Classical section.
What Mad Men evokes perfectly (even in one premiere episode), is the sense of a time when the powers, styles and ornaments of the past are poised to collide with the attitudes, swagger and misrule of the future. The point of impact, we know, will be devastating, but the fine, visceral sparks, molten as Vulcan’s forge, will shine in all directions with a dazzling, cosmic radiance that may just remake the world. This duality is perfectly captured in Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, a record that saw one of the most influential, innovative band leaders in jazz history sitting in humbly as a session piano player with the band of one of the young, promising, up and coming sax players of the day. The set consists primarily of reworkings of Duke’s own classics, but with an experimentation and rhapsodic improvisation that is at once both easy and enduring.
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane is one of those quintessential, timeless classics that manages to perfectly evoke its period, and also completely transcend it. From the opening bars of Ellington’s own “In a Sentimental Mood," we are ushered into a world that is dark, restless, anxious and beautiful, with Ellington’s brittle, jittery piano strokes playing counterpoint to Coltrane’s velvety, loping low-register sax, which enters like a suited panther, takes stock of the room and proceeds to sit in a corner banquette and calmly wind its watch. Ellington’s bird-like, fluttery back-and-forth plays the role of hapless conquest, a feeling, plum-hearted heroine who scans the floor with distracted instensity in an agony of nervous anticipation. It is the sound of seduction, rendered with haunting, cruel poetry.
The rest of Side A commences with a kind of swaggering, inconsequential improvisation. It’s artifice perfectly rendered as the sound of a band merely “tuning up.” Horns come in from the deep background, bass lines strut and bounce as if it doesn’t matter where they end up. The piano bops and crows over the fracas when it pleases itself, and we get the picture of an aging Duke, smiling paternally at the good time he’s authored, knowing that whatever lies ahead, the future of his music lays in capable hands.
He didn’t know how right he was. Nearly forty years later, the RZA would sample the opening piano hook from Side B’s opening cut, “My Little Brown Book,” for a track on Killah Priest’s Heavy Mental album.
For the time being, however, there is no real trace here of the Coltrane Coltrane would become. No sense of the spiritual urgency of A Love Supreme, the desperate holy fury of Mediations, the joyous world view of Kulu Se Mama, the transformed mastery of Stellar Regions. This is just a great jazz player who hadn’t yet evolved into the icon he would become. Just a full, luscious, liquid sax stealthily coiling itself around your soul.
DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHN COLTRANE DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHN COLTRANE, 1963, MCA/Impulse