[16 April 2008]
The 1940s and ‘50s were an especially classy period in American entertainment history. The two decades arguably form cinema’s golden age, with films such as Casablanca, All About Eve, and Ben Hur. Gone With the Wind would join this group too, if only it was distributed one year later. Musically, the big band romantic music era was still in swing with Count Basie and the Duke at its forefront. But later into the ‘50s, American popular music would take on various forms, and established big bands experienced some shakeups from both inner turmoil and music producers looking to work in different directions. By 1955, Duke Ellington no longer had a contract with long-time recording label Capitol Records. But, despite the prominence of Elvis hip-gyrations, Appalachian folk revivals, and doo-wop, the ‘50s produced some of the best big band jazz music in the genre’s history, as well as some of Duke Ellington’s finest work.
Under the umbrella term of TCB Records, The Montreux Jazz Label has produced and distributed global jazz records for 20 years now. Many of the recordings are long-buried nuggets of live music with little more than a date and a name marking the original casings. TCB distributes all different sub-genres of jazz—from swing era to contemporary jazz to bebop and more. But despite this comprehensive jazz catalogue, the company does not assume that every buyer is a jazz historian. CDs are color coded to help identify what kind of music you are listening to. Aside from the blue spine of the jewel case, there’s really very little else in terms of song information or history. TCB’s approach is to let the music do the talking, or Duke himself for that matter, who introduces each number with the slotted soloist. Of course, the ever-elegant bandleader also expresses his gratitude to the audience with a little between-song banter. At one point he says, “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You are more beautiful and more inspiring, and we love you more now than we did before.”
Like most Duke Ellington recordings, there is a tremendous amount of recognition given to the accompanying performers. The album cover proudly displays the 19 other musicians in this lineup, including fellow pianist Billy Strayhorn and saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who would leave the band just one year later to put together his own orchestra. Both Strayhorn and Hodges leave a visible mark on this concert, especially during their gorgeously lurking take of “Violet Blue”.
Other highlights on the album include the call and response coo of “Creole Love Song”, which employs the voice of Kay Davis. Davis’s voice-as-instrument chants match beautifully with the instrumentation, turning her into an enrapturing siren in the process. Billy Strayhorn commands the piano slides on the band’s classic theme “Take the ‘A’ Train”, which features some scant, yet particularly excited drum work from Sonny Greer and Butch Ballard. The hour long set is closed by the Johnny Hodges-led number “Jeep Is Jumpin’”.
For Duke Ellington fans, this is another welcome recording from an extremely dedicated jazz label. The concert contains some excellent work from Ellington, but more notably from Hodges and Strayhorn. Then again, Duke was never fully concerned with himself. His encouragement of fair interplay and group sound is readily apparent on this disc, just as it is on practically any other of his recordings. Live in Zurich, Switzerland 2.5.1950 makes for an entertaining set, and something that would fit nicely alongside some of the more gaudy and comprehensive Duke Ellington releases that have been put together since his passing.