In the vast Ellington discography, Blues in Orbit is a set people have tended to stay fond of. The original vinyl issue combined the results of two dates, December 2 and 3, 1959, with a title track and another laid down in February 1958, plus a date from February ‘58 with only one trumpet, alto and baritone saxophones and the full midfield trombone trio.
In fact, a full band plays only on the two 1958 titles. Ray Nance was also the sole trumpet in December 1959—and did get to play his violin on “C-Jam Blues”, rhythmically very different from his work on the early 1940s premiere.
And I might as well mention—if you ain’t confused yet, keep reading—that since Paul Gonsalves did not play on the second of the December dates there were only four rather than the normal five reeds that night.
The most familiar title is maybe “Blues in Blueprint” with Harry Carney’s delicate and finally feather-light pianissimo bass clarinet part a rare perfection. Quite a change is marked with the rasp of Matthew Gee’s baritone horn on his co-composed “The Swingers Get the Blues Too”, which follows immediately on “Blues in Blueprint”—or would do if it didn’t begin with grounds for a paternity suit, this very bluesy performance having got Gershwin’s “Summertime” pregnant with itself.
“The Swinger’s Jump” brings back Jimmy Hamilton’s forever forthright tenor, which a more sequential review would have mentioned as a highlight on the set’s opener, Hamilton’s own “Three Js Blues”, notable for a lower Hollywood brassy buzz. The once clichéed comparison between his tenor-playing and his clarinet playing is made a little more difficult by his clarinet re-entry following an ensemble scene-change on “Jump”. His animation is extreme and he performs somersaults in the stratosphere.
The title track is a jukebox-length two minutes twenty seven seconds. At only four seconds longer, “Villes Ville is the Place Man” celebrates Ellington’s ability to coin both the unforgettable dire verbalism (born dated) or simpler-than-you’d-think-possible blues to jam to (conceived swinging).
“Track 360” is a full band roarer, noisy kid brother of “Happy Go Lucky Local”. “Sentimental Lady” is a sister of “In a Sentimental Mood”, yet another Johnny Hodges feature, begun at the supreme altosaxophonist’s most quiet. After a louder passage with orchestra he doesn’t quite recover that initial level of lyrical innocence. It is back in “Brown Penny”, in an unissued performance with what sounds like a slightly mistimed or misjudged ensemble entry half-way through. If that apparent slight fluff kept the tape in the can, it was as well opened and this refreshing example of the joy of melancholy Hodges released. “Pie Eye’s Blues” reinforces the moral demand to note what an amazing musician Ray Nance was, with a collossal tone on the hybrid-like trumpet-cornet which he preferred to more conventional horns. The only fiddler always, and on the dates which provided the bulk of the music here sole Gabriel!
The unissued take of “The Swinger’s Blues” opens with Hodges. There’s Nance, the fluent underrated modernist trombone of Britt Woodman, Hamilton on tenor sounding Hodges-like as if imitating the absent Gonsalves (whose style was founded on Ben Webster, whose final maturity drew on Hodges). Hamilton’s ‘s gone into his own dirty mode before either Matthew Gee or Booty Wood plays the plunger solo on trombone, doing far more than just let Hamilton swap back to clarinet. “Smada”, “Pie-Eye’s Blues”, and “Sweet and Pungent” (the last two in separate takes) may only bring to mind Ellington’s occasional poetic facility in titling things. If it does, you’ve not heard this music.
The hitherto unreleased other take of “Track 360” brings back the entire band of 1958, in what might have been part of a the project of an extended composition. Extended composition simply wasn’t the thing when Blues in Orbit was brought into being as an album. Whereas this is all very recognisably Ellington, it has things in common with a kind of 1940s Count Basie music-making which Shorty Rogers and other California-based giants attempted with individual success. Basie was asked, presumably more than once, about the difference between his band and Ellington’s. With that sort of half-lisp which attended his pronouncements, laid-back and timed like his music could be, he uttered the single syllable “Classss”.
If he’d had Ellington’s verbal habits he might have said that Ellington was the foxiest hedgehog who knew how to do a lot of big things, or many of any size you like.