Duke Ellington: Centennial Collection

Robert R. Calder

Duke Ellington

Centennial Collection

Label: Bluebird
US Release Date: 2004-08-24
UK Release Date: Available as import

This is a fair sample of Ellington, planned not blind (or deaf?) just by choosing standard items of repertoire in any old performance, but presenting a musical identity. There are tunes his band played from their 1920s debuts and well past the master's demise in 1974, and Victor have early versions recorded under contract. I still boggle at the idiot producer who included one track in a collection, saying it had Ellington as a sideman in Joe Turner's Memphis orchestra -- when it had the full Ellington band moonlighting. Ellington could be naughty, he could be many things. He recorded excellent versions of "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "East St. Louis Toodle-O" in 1927 for Victor, and the sound was marvellous (Victor even recorded him some five years later in stereo, experimentally. It sounds amazing but isn't here). On these hi-tech sides there is the early departed Bubber Miley, and the even earlier though not so tragically departed Rudy Jackson, a clarinetist and saxophonist who was too naughty and presented the band with a composition of his own which he had not long before recorded with its actual composer. Goodbye. But no doubt he left of his own accord, since Ellington didn't fire anybody before 1945.

The personnel details are sloppy in line with this series; the notes mention that Johnny Hodges solos on soprano and Harry Carney on baritone saxophone on "Old Man Blues", but they're not listed playing these horns on the 1930 date. In December, 1930, Ellington recorded "Mood Indigo" not merely yet again but in not the same arrangement as I had got used to. Nice. "Stompy Jones" from 1934 wasn't so often revived, but with Hodges and Harry Edison he made one of his major recordings of it nearly 30 years later for Verve. This old one's pretty good, and so of course is "Solitude", which I'm more used to in a collection for the label which came to own the moonlighted Joe Turner titles -- and the remarkable output Ellington recorded between 1934 and 1939. From 1927 over 1934 into resumption of recording for Victor in '39, the selection here floats very well. The music's all of a piece.

Between '34 and '39 Ellington had a nice bassist called Hayes Alvis. Since he never fired anybody before 1945, when he found another good man called Billy Taylor, his band had for some time two bassists. Then he heard Jimmy Blanton, and hired him, and Taylor left at once in order (as he is said to have said) not to seem like a fool standing playing beside him. With the addition of Ben Webster, Ellington had just acquired his first proper tenor saxophone soloist, and some of the music of Kansas City, in Ben Webster. Ellington talked about a musical melting-pot and belittled differences of idiom, but it was to differences of idiom within jazz that his band owed much of its colour. Blanton was simply an unprecedented bass virtuoso, and the references in the notes to Stravinsky befriending him and great conductors sitting marvelling at him need glossing. Serge Koussevitzky was indeed a major exiled Russian conductor, but he was probably the greatest virtuoso of the double bass. Along comes Blanton, who tragically had tuberculosis and died aged 23 in 1943.

This CD has five titles from the studio recordings by the 1940 Ellington band, "Ko-Ko" being to my mind unsurpassed. The ensemble led by Joe Nanton's wa-wa trombone has unique snarl and bite, and is said to represent an African slave-market. I suppose the music's about a transmutation through enragement into spirited intelligence.

The last seven tracks reflect the improvements of the time in recording techniques, The radio company which recorded four items from a Culver City broadcast of 1941 (on a sixteen-inch transcription disc) was well matched by the amateur who had a private disc-cutter registering a June 1941 radio signal on yellow discs of coated cardboard. The insert says these titles are "previously unissued". This may well be true, but the range of private recordings of the period continues to increase. There are two nice songs from Ellington's vocaliste Ivie Anderson, a lovely woman who turned up at A Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers, and who also succumbed in time to tuberculosis. Both her songs were arranged by Ellington's then still recently discovered spiritual shadow, Billy Strayhorn, and "Love Like This Can't Last" seems to have his words too.

Even more interesting are the instrumentals. "In a Mellow Tone" adds to the range of expected well-known tunes by the star of a CD in this series, but there's Jimmy Blanton all the way, full of life but not long for this world. There's a feature for Ellington's foundational New Orleans clarinet virtuoso Barney Bigard, and one of the rare recordings of the Webster feature "Chelsea Bridge" and a "Moon Mist" introduced maybe not under its original, other title, but by a gabby announcer's loose way with details.

"Sepia Panorama" has, according to the notes, Blanton's one recorded solo in slap-string style on bass. He sounds just particularly closely recorded to me. And this is wonderful. The notes refer to disc time having run out before the end of the performance, but any loose end was well trimmed and the thing doesn't sound incomplete. One would have liked more -- more years of Blanton.

The DVD is worth more enthusiasm, the excellent notes recounting how the planned 1934 short film "Symphony in Black" -- with some Ellington compositions within its programme and a sting in its title -- was deprived of the properly subversive literary plot Ellington had devised. There's a 1937 film on how a record was made (not by Victor, but the company which then had Ellington under contract). Little old documentaries are fascinating, but this has some soundtrack on a par with the "soundies" which follow, jukebox-with-pictures items which represent some of the qualities and in one or two cases actual routines of Ellington musical revues of 1941, with the strange image of someone trying to keep Uncle Tom revived with a hypodermic needle. I do suspect that's still being tried. The death of a baby was hushed up out of the plot of "Symphony in Black". Ellington was political in many, many ways.

And there's some band performances recorded for a newsreel company, and an eleven-minute interview (sound only) with Ellington, from January 1941, for Radio Newsreel. How he managed such staggering later achievements after the pinnacle of 1941, well, God alone knows.

There's too much here for any negative reflections to be worth uttering. Bluebird got this one right.

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