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Duke Ellington
Black, Brown & Beige

Duke Ellington
Ellington at Newport 1956

Duke Ellington
Meets Count Basie

Duke Ellington
Soul Call

Duke Ellington
Such Sweet Thunder

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges
Side By Side
by Sarah Zupko

As arguably one of the finest American composers of the 20th century, along with Cole Porter, it’s only fitting that the hoopla surrounding the Duke Ellington centennial has reached a fever pitch. Far more than a jazz musician, Ellington was a prodigious composer, penning more than 2,000 songs, constantly evolving in both his playing and compositional technique, and often branching out beyond the standard song form to write thematic suites. He composed constantly, wherever he was, and in many ways shared more in common with classical composers than his jazz colleagues. If he’d been born in Europe 50 years earlier, he may have been Franz Schubert, but as it was, he turned the swing orchestra and jazz band into as vibrant and versatile an orchestra as the New York Philharmonic. Oh, and his band could swing too, like few others, except for the Benny Goodman and Count Basie bands.

Columbia’s contributions to the reissue mania feature a number of milestones in Ellington’s long and varied career. Chief among them is the all-time Ellington best-seller Ellington at Newport 1956. This is one of the finest live jazz recordings ever and is well-known in part for the near orgiastic “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” with its 27-chorus solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. It nearly caused an audience riot and that electric excitement is fully evident on the recording. The reissue restores more than 100 minutes of music to the old 39-minute record and includes a complete document of both the concert event and the studio recordings of the next day.

Ellington’s many peerless sidemen throughout the years inspired some of his finest songwriting. He used their unique sounds as starting point for compositions. Saxophonist Johnny Hodges was one of his most frequent muses. On Side By Side, Hodges liquid sax playing is front and center, while Ellington’s long-time partner Billy Strayhorn replaces the Duke on piano on a couple of tracks. Hodges’ incendiary playing is integral on the live recording Soul Call from July 1966. Led by the masterpiece “La Plus Belle Africaine,” a jazz-symphonic piece with irresistible African rhythms originally written for the World Festival of the Negro Arts, Ellington’s band is a tight, swinging wonder throughout. Based on the opening track alone, this is an essential addition to any good music collection.

Of historic importance was Ellington’s 1961 teaming with the Count Basie band. Basie and Ellington were both superb stride pianists and had the hottest bands around, so it’s a combination that was long over due. Essentials such as “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” and “Take The A Train” are doubly swinging with the two masters at the helm.

For Otto Preminger’s classic Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington tried his hand at film music, producing one of the finest soundtracks ever. The rap on this recording for a long time was that the sound was muddy, marred by overly heavy echo effects. The re-mastering has taken care of that, plus an additional 30 minutes of music make a far more interesting album.

Meanwhile, Ellington’s adventurous side became even more evident on a duo of albums based on several thematic concepts. On his concept album, Black, Brown & Beige, Ellington teamed with the incomparable gospel legend Mahalia Jackson to record and expand upon his three movement 1943 suite that represented the odyssey of blacks in America. Inspired by his successful appearance at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Ellington composed a series of pieces based on themes from Shakespeare (Such Sweet Thunder). Working again with Strayhorn, Ellington produced a complex suite that featured the stellar playing of Hodges and Gonsalves.

Tagged as: duke ellington
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