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Duke Ellington : 2004 Reissues (Part 1)

Duke Ellington recorded for many labels during his lifetime, from his early sessions backing singers or with The Washingtonians, all the way up to the 1974 edition of the Orchestra. There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of sessions (Ducal fetishists will tell you to dig through the latest edition of W.E. Timner’s marvelous Ellington: The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen). Given today’s musical landscape, for the myriad of indies that Duke and his contemporaries recorded for, the master recordings are now owned by a select few. Sony/Columbia has rather considerable Duke assets, mostly stemming from the three major periods of association: 1927-1940; 1947-1952; and 1956-1962. While the latter two periods are often dismissed (you know those folks—those that say that Duke’s last great period was with the Blanton-Webster Band of 1940-42), there are many gems to be found after 1950, some of which are assessed here.

Since the majors appear to be solely in the reissue business these days, it is interesting to note how Sony/Columbia has handled the Maestro’s assets. While Sony did put out several releases in 1999, the year of Duke’s 100th anniversary, RCA released a monstrous (and entirely essential) 24-disc set presenting his complete output for the label in pristine remastering (including the aforementioned Blanton-Webster sides and a mountain of alternate/rare tracks). Not to overstress the point, but Sony could have done a lot better than they did. Of course, they did release some worthwhile titles (like the legendary Newport set featuring Paul Gonsalves’ famous multi-chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”), but nothing that could be deemed essential. The sad thing is that the remainder of the material continues to sit in the vaults collecting dust—most criminally, the material from the Okeh era with its dated remastering (which includes some of Duke’s most classic material with Bubber Miley) and the late 30’s recordings.

So, another anniversary is upon us: The 30th anniversary of Duke’s passing. Without question, these new reissues (with more to come)—Masterpieces By Ellington, Ellington Uptown and Festival Session—are an extremely welcome occasion and hopefully a sign that the catalog will come back into print with top-notch mastering. Based on the results heard here, there is a great deal of hope.

After making some of the most remarkable music of his career (and Jazz history), Ellington came back to Columbia in 1947 and stuck around until 1952. Technologically speaking, these were Duke’s last 78’s and his first recording via a magnetic tape. There are many highlights from the period including both new compositions (who can really resist Ray Nance’s vocal on “You’re Just An Old Antidisestabishmentarianismist”? ) and revamped classics. The biggest blow of the period, for Duke at least, was the loss of three extremely important members of the band in 1951: Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Sunny Greer. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The title Masterpieces By Ellington may seem a bit hyperbolic, especially when you are referring to a composer who wrote anywhere from arguably 25-75 certifiable masterpieces (some not as well known as they should be, mind you, and depending on your level of obsessiveness), but in terms of this particular record, the title is apt. Columbia’s introduction of the long playing record in 1948 lead to the idea that Duke should take advantage of the new medium by recording “concert” arrangements of some of his most known pieces. Thus, the gems, “Mood Indigo”, “Sophisticated Lady”, and “Solitude” are given extended performances alongside a new piece, “The Tattooed Bride”, the latter of which makes its first (and last) studio appearance. The record begins with a luscious 15-minute version of “Mood Indigo” that features gorgeous smoke from the soloists, whether initial sputtering Procope statements or the smooth flow of Johnny Hodges and later, the Webster-influenced lines of Paul Gonsalves. On both “Mood Indigo” and the next piece, “Sophisticated Lady”, vocalist Yvonne Lanauze takes an easygoing approach with a smooth-as-silk delivery that keeps the mood warm. The latter is treated with typical beauty, a Carney spotlight, here on bass clarinet during the opening segments, as well as lyrical work from trumpeter Shorty Baker. The “Tattooed Bride” is a feature for Jimmy Hamilton’s marvelous clarinet work, though the band takes it out in a typically sophisticated manner. Finally, as for the original program, “Solitude” is a precious feature for all of the main soloists. For what it’s worth, the three bonus tracks are good fun, but don’t really increase the value of this already sublime record.

Ellington Uptown came next but was notable for the absence of many key players, especially Hodges. Despite the loss, the band doesn’t seem to miss them much, as they sound refreshed, particularly by the presence of drummer (and composer) Louis Bellson. From the opening moments of the record, Bellson kicks hard on his drum-centric “Skin Deep”. Why Bellson’s blitzkrieg single-stroke rolls and booming double bass drum work (a decade or more before rock drummers began to add another bass drum to their arsenals) isn’t mentioned as one of the greatest drumming performances of all time is a mystery. The “concert arrangement” concept continues here too, with versions of classics like “The Mooch” and of course, “Take The ‘A’ Train”. The latter is known by many for Betty Roché’s sassy and cool vocal, complete with a Bop scat chorus or two. Duke's piano work, Bellson’s whisking brushwork and Gonsalves’ soaring tenor work also add spice to this old warhorse. Considerable beauty is also present too, seen through the symphonic colors of “Tone Parallel Of Harlem”, the record’s focal point that demonstrates yet again the depth of Duke and Strayhorn’s compositional and arranging prowess. As for the original program’s finale, “Perdido”, it is a smoker. Check out Duke’s boogie-woogie intro and later in the piece, the brass’ fours-trading amidst a supremely swinging tempo.

As for the two extra long-form pieces tacked on to Uptown, they do add depth, despite not necessarily falling in line thematically. First, the “Controversial Suite” is Duke’s look at the state of the music in December of 1951 that highlights this band’s versatility. The first part, “Before My Time”, is a take on New Orleans and perhaps an answer to those straw-hat modeling revivalists, while the second part, “Later”, is Duke’s look at “modern Jazz”, featuring rather forward-looking solos from both Gonsalves and Duke himself. Finally, the “Liberian Suite”, presents a previously orphaned piece (during the CD era) from 1947 (whoa!: Brown, Hodges and Greer are back!). The first section, “I Like The Sunrise”, is simply sublime due to Al Hibbler’s luminous vocal. The focus of the rest of the “Dances” is on exotic moods mixed with a healthy dose of swing. The highlights include Al Sears’ gruff wails on “Dance No. 1”, Tyree Glenn’s glittering vibes on “Dance No. 2” and Carney’s ebullient work on the tango of “Dance No. 3”. This record is one for the desert island and its value is increased by the inclusion of the two remarkable long-form suites.

Duke left Columbia and eventually returned after recording for Capitol for a stretch (with the Company’s goal being commercial success—although the Reprise era wasn’t too far away either). 1959 saw the recording of Festival Session, not a stinker by any stretch, but not even close to the level of the previous two records. This is simply a band having fun and trying to capture the vibe from its road work (you’ll even hear Duke’s announcements to the “audience”—it was recorded in a NYC studio). The soloists, of course, are still aplenty and Duke makes good use of their talents. Right off the bat, the band is smoking on the Juan Tizol penned, Clark Terry feature, “Perdido” (yes, heard again). Paul Gonsalves has his run with “Copout Extension” that treads rather closely, seemingly ripping himself off, in the mode of “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”. For the drum-heads, the three part “Duael Feul” should do the trick, an excursion for two drummers, Jimmy Johnson and Sam Woodyard, and the rest of the band. The grand finale, and a new track, “Jam With Sam”, ends the program joyously, with an absolutely stratospheric solo from Cat Anderson that stretches the boundaries of the human ear. Certainly, this session is far less memorable than others, but shows a tight band, in good spirits, with plenty to say.

Considering the above, Masterpieces and Uptown are more essential than Festival Session; however, the band was certainly playing on a high level, one which would continue for arguably another 5-10 years. Now that Sony/Columbia has released these gems, let’s hope that there is more on the horizon. We never need an anniversary for more Ducal adventures.