from Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition
On the face of it, 'Main Stem' may seem casual enough: a blues in a relatively fast tempo. It opens with a theme played by the orchestra [0:00], followed by a succession of one-chorus solos by sidemen, and a final return to the theme. It is a big band blues, then, apparently like many other casually conceived and executed big band blues of the time.
The opening chorus of 'Main Stem' is its 12-bar theme. But the theme involves some interesting accents and phrases; it is not the usual repeated two-bar riff moved around to fit the blues chords. Then there is its orchestration: a casual listening would probably not reveal which instruments and which combinations of instruments are playing what....
The second chorus [0:14] offers Rex Stewart's cornet, apparently taking over for the band's recently departed plunger-mute soloist, Cootie Williams. However, the chorus is not a solo but an antiphonal [i.e., call/response] episode in which the saxophones deliver simple statements-simple, but taking off from one of the phrases in the opening theme-to which Stewart gives imitative, puzzled, plaintive or humorous responses. Next [0:27] is an alto saxophone solo by Johnny Hodges, and Hodges the melodist is left by himself with no background but the rhythm section. Then [0:41] Stewart returns in his own style. He gets a background, with saxes predominating, obviously in contrast to his own brass instrument. But the background is also an imaginatively simplified version of the opening theme. Then trumpeter Ray Nance solos [0:55], and behind him the theme returns more strongly, almost exactly. The next soloist is clarinetist Barney Bigard [1:08]; he juxtaposes a melodic fragment, suggested by the theme, over still another simplification of the theme, this time appropriately scored with the brass predominating. And behind Joe Nanton's plunger-muted trombone solo [1:22] there is another sketch of the main melody, this one with saxes predominating.
Perhaps 'Main Stem' approaches monotony at this point. What we hear next begins with a 6-measure modulatory transition [1:36], almost lyric in contrast to what has preceded it. Then there are four measures by the ensemble [1:42] and a 14- measure solo by Ben Webster [1:47], the hint of lyricism continuing in his accompaniment. We are into a second section of "Main Stem." Webster's earnestness is followed by another four measures from the ensemble [2:03] and a 14-bar virtuoso trombone solo by Lawrence Brown [2:07], but with a brass accompaniment that is increasingly rhythmic, preparing for what follows. And what comes next is a recapitulation of the opening theme [2:23], but not an exact one. As if to balance both sections of the piece, Ellington extends the 12-bar theme with an 8-measure coda [2:37].
With such organization and unity, 'Main Stem' is a far from casual performance. Yet it is relatively casual for Duke Ellington.