Duke Ellington was not just an amazing piano player and composer and band leader, he was also smart with his recordings. Ellington recorded his orchestra out of his own pocket and held onto the tapes, selling them to labels for release. The Ellington Suites was originally issued in the ’70s by Norman Granz, head of Pablo Records, after Granz smartly bought up these unissued suites. The album is reissued as part of a campaign from Concord Music Group to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pablo Records, and to hear the best parts of The Ellington Suites is to realize just how vital that label was and the gems it could unearth even from the most famous of musicians.
The three suites here are different in style and execution, but “The Queen’s Suite” stands out for another reason. The other two suites here, The Goutelas Suite and The Uwis Suite, were recorded in 1971 and 1972 respectively. The Queen’s Suite, however, which Ellington dedicated to Elizabeth II, had been recorded back in 1959. It’s a remarkable and dynamic performance, stretching what seems like well past its 20-minute run time. It’s an often bluesy and sultry piece, surprising perhaps for an ode to a queen, but it works. Opening movement “Sunset and the Mockingbird” starts with some small piano phrasings, as if the bird is waking up, shaking its feathers, but then the song sways into a beautiful, lush shuffle. The band clears out to let Ellington’s gentle piano work shine through, but the winds seem to accent it, almost shadow it, before trading fills with Ellington. It leads into the more playful slide of “Lightning Bugs and Frogs” and the blue-light moods of “Le Sucrier Velours”. Ellington and the Orchestra shift deftly between a childlike playfulness and a more serious mix of tempo and texture, and both sides are equally complex and rich. By the time you get to the impressive stomp of the dramatic closer, “Apes and Peacocks”, the suite has explored just about all the strengths in Ellington’s repertoire. The band is at the peak of its powers here, and the myriad players gel together well, even as the music itself can constantly fracture and rebuild, stronger in one moment than it was a minute before.
In contrast to this dynamic suite, the other two don’t hold up quite as well. The Goutelas Suite is spacious and sometimes beautiful, far more dreamlike and ethereal than The Queen’s Suite, but it also runs too brief. Its 13 minutes seem to be mostly build up and comedown from “Something”, it’s five minute middle piece. The song is lilting and bittersweet, a warm and sweeping back and forth between the winds and horns — meshed together nicely here — and Ellington’s keys. The suite, though, seems to just get going, just establish its parameters, and then it fades out.
The Uwes Suite is the biggest curiosity here, broken into three bigger parts and featuring Ellington’s only known recording of a polka. That polka movement, “Klop”, is an interesting hinge in the suite and fascinating moment of playfulness on an album of movements more devoted to dramatic weight. The shift into polka is impressive, if a bit on the nose, but it sets up the more interesting experiments in phrasing Ellington tries on his piano on the third piece, “Loco Madi”, which is the finest, most ambitious moment for the orchestra that’s not a part of The Queen’s Suite.
Perhaps most interesting here is the inclusion of the previously unissued track, “The Kiss”. The standalone track that closes this collection was recorded in 1972, around the same time as The Uwes Suite, and it’s an interesting shift in sound, one that seems to want to imbue the big band sound with a small band intimacy. The movements by the horns feel less like melodies and more like tightly contained solos. The drums snap and pop as the band clears out late in the song to let the rhythm section carry the day. It’s a great song on its own and wonderful counterpart to the larger movements it follows.
It’s hard to match The Ellington Suites up with some of Duke Ellington’s more classic recordings. For one, there is just so much of it. But if these aren’t always the best suites of his career, there’s still the major highlight of The Queen’s Suite, the surprise of “The Kiss”, and these other suites that are surely solid and offer different corners of Ellington’s musical world. It’s all worth owning if you love big band jazz, even if only some of it is essential.