I do not envy the compiler responsible for assembling this collection. The Essential series generally does a fair-to-great job of putting together a reasonable overview of the artists under examination, but some must be easier than others. Putting together something like, say, The Essential Eddie Money is a relatively easy thing to do—more complicated artists like Dylan and Sinatra probably present considerable challenges. But still, they pale in comparison to the headaches of whittling down the very best—or, at least, most important—material of such a monumentally important and prolific artist as the Duke. Two discs, for example, seems awful perfunctory considering that past Ellington collections have occasionally ran to 24.
So, while even a dilettante such as myself could easily catalog a number of omissions, it wouldn’t really serve any purpose. This set covers the bases in as fleet-footed a fashion as possible. Beginning in 1927 and running until 1960, the collection covers almost every significant revolution in pop music during the 30-year period—from the evolution of the big band sound to the revolution in stereo recording to the constant tug-of-war between the composer and the improviser which eventually came to define the music’s most powerful idioms. There’s no doubt that, in terms of jazz, Louis Armstrong deserves his place of foremost prominence, but only just—Ellington is one of only a handful of artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Satchmo. But outside of the realm of jazz, Ellington’s influence is arguably greater even than Armstrong’s, as he did more to bridge the gaps between jazz and classical, pop and even world music than any other musician in the 20th century (excepting, maybe, George Gershwin).
That the collection stops so abruptly at the onset of the ‘60s—and that it features some large gaps in the intervening eras—is probably due to label constraints as much as anything. It’s hard to imagine that the compilers wouldn’t have wanted to include at least a few representative cuts from Ellington’s classic team-ups with the likes of Armstrong, Count Basie, Coltrane and Mingus—but on the other hand, the cut-off date also serves to encapsulate almost every major innovation of Ellington’s career. He would create some great music in the years between 1960 and his death in 1974, but his days of tearing the world inside out were over. Fittingly, the album’s final track is one of Ellington’s incredibly rich Tchaikovsky arrangements, “Arabesque Cookie” (from the Nutcracker Suite)—in the space of two CDs the listener goes from the crucible of jazz in the 1920s to its apotheosis as the most important unifying force in modern music. That jazz itself would eventually be shuffled out of the limelight during the onset of rock and roll is no real shame, because the work of Ellington and his contemporaries had already provided most of the musical framework and vocabulary by which pop music would continue to define itself throughout the end of the 20th century.
Considering the historic focus of The Essential series, it is only meet and just that the collection lingers on Ellington’s revolutionary early years, in particular his band’s historic run at the Cotton Club from 1927-1931. The album’s first seven tracks were recorded in that four year period, while the rest of the collection’s 30 songs were plucked fairly evenly from the remaining 30 years, which should give you some measure of the era’s importance as the incubator not only of Ellington’s sound but the sound of jazz in general. From a tightly coiled ragtime sound the music would expand and grow to fit a new kind of landscape. In just four years Ellington evolved from the cavernous “East St. Louis Toole-Oo” to the languid “Creole Rhapsody”—the musical equivalent of moving from black & white to glorious Technicolor.
Coming out of this important period, Ellington would record some of the most enduring standards in American music—“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, “Solitude”, “In a Sentimental Mood”, “Caravan”, “Clouds in My Heart”. The wartime period would prove almost as fertile, and you would probably recognize “Mood Indigo”, “Ko-Ko”, and “Takin’ the A Train” from this period. Even if you’ve never heard them, Ellington’s arrangements and compositions are hardwired into the DNA of American music: trust me, you’ll recognize them.
So while we can quibble with the exclusions—the gaps in time when Ellington recorded with labels not represented here, the exclusions of more examples of his experimental arrangements, the lack of any real focus on Ellington’s excellent piano playing—it’s impossible to quibble with what is actually here. If you already know your Duke, this isn’t the collection for you. But if you’re new to jazz, or new to Ellington, this disc serves as an admirable Clift’s notes. This disc showcases Ellington as most remember him, as a masterful composer, a visionary arranger and a pop songwriter of enduring merit. If you like it—and really, it’s impossible not to—there is plenty more where this came from.