“I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Those are the words of Puck in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and those are the musical statements of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, who began writing the music to “Such Sweet Thunder,” a masterful twelve-part suite based upon the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, in december of 1956. That same month in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and 155 others (104 blacks, 21 Indians, 23 whites and 7 coloureds) were arrested and charged with “high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow
the present government.” And that very same month, a 25-year-old, up-and-coming bassist from Memphis was in Southern California playing and recording with the Art Pepper-Warne Marsh Quintet, while also writing compositions in hopes of
getting to new York city to be near his idol, Duke Ellington. It is amazing how things come full circle.
I have known about Ben Tucker since I first began collecting vinyl in college and discovered his name on recordings by Oliver Nelson, Gerry Mulligan, Mary Lou williams, Jimmy Smith, Quincy Jones and Kenny Burrell. I was fortunate to meet Ben in person during the mid-80s when we served on a panel together for the Georgia council for the Arts, but after I moved to new York to help create Jazz at Lincoln center, we didn’t cross paths again until 2002 when I arrived
in Savannah to direct the Savannah Music Festival (SMF). Since then, our professional and personal paths remain intertwined, and he is a regular part of SMF and its offerings, such as his 75th birthday celebration that we produced a few years ago. And it was an SMF “Music in the Schools” project that we toured in the Chatham County Public Schools in February of 2008, featuring Ben, trumpeter Marcus Printup, and drummer Kinah Boto, which fostered the idea for this recording. The circle continues.
“Sekunjalo” is an Nguni term in South Africa which translated means either “now’s the time” or “seize the
moment.” It’s a perfect description for what Ben and pianist Kevin Bales did on August 28, 2008, when they assembled Marcus, Kinah and alto saxophonist Mace Hibbard to create the heartfelt music contained in this recording. As described by Ben:
“Sweet Thunder is a jazz session that is purely creative and improvised jazz. It was impromptu and happened spontaneously and extemporaneously. For me, it was a bit of déjà vu in the sense that these players are living extensions of past jazz greats whom I knew, yet they each possess their own individual sound. Marcus Printup reminds me of the days of Clifford Brown and Clark Terry, yet his sound is unmistakably his own. Kevin Bales has the influences of Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea with a 21st century sensibility. Kinah Boto is reminiscent of Kenny Clarke and Elvin Jones, and he never stops swinging. Mace Hibbard has a creativity of his own, but the influences of Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Stitt shine through his sound. This session was both exciting and laid back. we are indeed the product of our creator, and to me this is the essence of jazz.”
While Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years, he was given very few books to read. Ben wanted to call the recording “Sweet Thunder” because of the fact that one book Mandela kept in his cell was Whitney Balliett’s Such Sweet Thunder, which he read and absorbed over his duration in prison. In the book, Ben is mentioned twice, when he was present at an
awards ceremony for Duke Ellington at City Hall in New York. During that ceremony, Ben performed “Take The A Train” with Clark Terry, Jerome Richardson, Benny Powell and Grady Tate, for which Ellington stood and applauded before playfully reminding the crowd that the composition was written by Billy Strayhorn. Ben is proud of having been part of that occasion, but he was elated to learn that the story was equally meaningful to Mandela during his sentence. The circle proceeds.
The music on “Sweet Thunder” speaks for itself. It is small band jazz, not unlike what Ben was playing half a century ago, yet very different. Today, Ben Tucker remains the most important local jazz musician in a city that birthed such musical talent as Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Trummy Young, James Moody, Sahib Shihab and Ben Riley. He still carries his own bass and loads it in the back of his car on the way to the next gig. he still smiles on the bandstand while
emulating the sound of sweet thunder. For Ben Tucker, the circle never stops.
Executive and Artistic director,
Savannah Music Festival