I hate it when they do that. I don’t care that it’s a bargain-priced reissue. I don’t care that it’s great value with over 30 classic tunes on two CDs. There should at least be some information on the sleeve. I know it’s the music that counts but this is Duke Ellington, for heaven’s sake. Surely he deserves more than just a list of song titles. Some hint as to when these tracks were recorded, never mind who was on them, is not too much to ask, is it? The premier composer in jazz, the finest musicians of the day, arguably the most significant examples of a genuine American art form ever made—some respect, guys, please.
Apart from that oversight, this collection can hardly fail to please . If you have any interest in American popular culture and/or music of any kind you need some awareness of the Ellington orchestra and the material “chosen” here is the great man pretty much at his best. Plenty would question whether there was any other sort of Ellington. For the record, the first CD contains material from 1940-42 and CD two runs from 1932-35. That means that the second selection shows the orchestra still with plenty of traces of the Cotton Club-twenties sound but burgeoning ambition as far as arrangements go, while the first selection is generally regarded as quintessential Ellingtonia. The journey from hot jazz to swing can be traced here and in its most elegantly rendered form.
As the band lineup is largely the same on both discs you also get a good picture of the evolution of a unique style. The earlier material is wonderful but very much of its moment. The later recordings are, even today, dazzling in their precision, scope and general tonal richness. Timeless is a tired and critically suspect term but it is tempting to use the adjective. If that won’t do, then pick any adoring superlative and it will suffice. Musicians are still mining this material, and anything more than the most casual listen will help you see why.
A brief glance down the track listing is enough to send shivers down any jazz fan’s spine. From the later sessions “Take the A Train”, “In a Mellow Tone”, “I Got It Bad”, “Concerto for Cootie”, “Perdido” and “KoKo” are still part of the jazz repertoire and these are all as near as you can get to the definitive versions. Earlier, we have “In a Sentimental Mood”, “Creole Love Call”, “Sophisticated Lady” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing”—tunes which Ellington kept returning to throughout his career. Simply as compositions, they have all stood the test of time but they are alive in a way precious little music from the period can claim to be.
Apart from their compositional strengths, the flawless playing maintains the freshness of the songs. The musicians who worked with Duke, though legendary within jazz circles, sacrificed a high popular profile for the security and privilege of close association with the number-one figure in the business. Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, Sonny Greer etc. had long careers with the orchestra and are present throughout these recordings. Ben Webster, Rex Stewart and Jimmy Blanton are only on the later sessions. All of these figures were major innovators in their own right—there was never a weak link in these lineups. They made marvellous solo contributions, but so striking is the ensemble work that their individual flare has perhaps been under-valued. This is another reason to lament the lack of liner info—unless you know already, Hodges’ fluid alto flights or Carney’s baritone mastery remain anonymous.
Still, the whole sound is the thing. Try “KoKo” for instance. The opening call-and-response sequence has a rhythmic and melodic inventiveness that could be dropped into any modern set and still surprise, while the ballads such as “Warm Valley” are lush and mellow in ways later producers only dream about. If Swing to you means only the stultifying arrangements of Glenn Miller, then try “What Am I Here For” or “Harlem Air Shaft” to hear how it should sound. Or catch the melodic lines beneath Ivie Anderson’s sultry vocals on “I Got It Bad” and marvel at how the whole horn section acts as one superior instrument. There are three vocal cuts, incidentally, the above from 1941, and two from 1932—Anderson again pepping up “It Don’t Mean a thing” and a certain Bing Crosby making a surprisingly good job of “St. Louis Blues”. There are plenty of examples of the other type of “vocalising” that was a trademark of the Duke’s work in those days—the “talking” trumpets and trombones. These may seem a novelty now but they have a certain charm. As with the recreation of railway trains (“Daybreak Express”), they show the way that the music was very pictorial, trying to capture an “American” landscape in all its moods.
It may be hard for a young audience to find the genius in a music that so obviously belongs to different and long-departed days. But with the popularity of Charles Mingus and Sun Ra with the post-Acid Jazz crowd, perhaps a few will check out the man to whom those exceptional band leaders owed their greatest debt. This is not a bad place to start, although a bit of homework will be needed if they want to get the most from these perfect examples of the best music of that era when the vocabulary of jazz was being explored and expanded in ways which still resonate today.