Scientifically speaking, absinthe is no different from any other flavored spirit. Studies have shown that its legendary hallucinatory effects, its special quality of intoxication, owe more to the drink's mythology than they do to its ingredients. But despite the clinical evidence, absinthe retains its mystique--a unique feeling captured on record by two jazz giants.
Absinthe started as a peasant drink made in rural Switzerland, sold in France as a medicinal tonic. In the mid-nineteenth century, what started as a malaria preventative turned into the drink of the Parisian counterculture, then the European mainstream. Artists and bohemians adopted it and spread rumors of its effects, which included hallucinations and a distinctive clear-headed drunkenness that is said to have inspired artists from Oscar Wilde to Vincent Van Gogh.
In reality, any effect of the wormwood that flavors absinthe is likely minor to nonexistent, and to the extent anyone hallucinated from drinking Parisian absinthe, it is more likely the result of poisons and contaminants than anything inherent in the beverage itself. Still, public perception of absinthe's wild effects backfired, and the humble medicinal was eventually banned in its native Switzerland in 1908, in the United States, including its native foothold of New Orleans, in 1912, and in France in 1914.
For most of the twentieth century it was difficult and illegal to drink absinthe in most of the world, until new scientific evidence, and a legal loophole, led to a revival in England in the 1990s. While science has stripped away its hallucinatory mystique, the historical glamor of the drink, and its unique ritual, have led bars across the world to install new dripping absinthe fountains and invest in the special spoons used in the traditional preparation.
Like the drink, the song "Absinthe" started life in a different, more conventional form. Composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn worked with Duke Ellington from the 1930s until his death in the 1960s, writing most of their best-known songs, including "Take The A Train" and "Lush Life," a world-weary standard written when Strayhorn was just sixteen.
Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but in the 1930s, that avenue was closed to a young, openly gay black man from Pittsburgh. With Ellington's band, Strayhorn found a safe place to explore and to experiment. His compositions, especially his later ones, are symphonic, sometimes discordant, and always carefully and thoughtfully constructed.
Strayhorn was also prolific, and as a result songs sometimes fell through the cracks; "Take the A Train" was reportedly rescued by Ellington from Strayhorn's wastebasket. "Absinthe" started life in the 1940s as a song on the band's playlist, under titles like "Fluid Jive," "Water Lily," and "Lament for an Orchid." But it was not recorded until 1963, when Ellington included a reworked version on his "Afro-Bossa" album, with the new title "Absinthe."
For "Absinthe," Strayhorn broke up the melody, and instead of conventional solos and choruses, the tune is passed back and forth between the band members, especially between Johnny Hodges' alto sax and Paul Gonsalves' tenor. Twice, at the climax and near the end, the band cuts out almost completely, and Strayhorn himself--not Ellington, who did not play on this track--completes the melody on solo piano.
Like the legend of absinthe, the tune is both relaxing and exciting, with Strayhorn's carefully calculated discords and the band's improvisational commentary combining to make the track an understated classic on one of Ellington's underrated later albums.