Part 3, 1956 - 1974
Major works and live recordings
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Instead of continuing a purely chronological listing, I have divided the work of Ellington's later years into four broad categories. Each category contains a list of titles with which I am familiar, with brief comments on each. The categories are purely arbitrary, and there is considerable overlap among them. The categories are: Major Works, Live Recordings, Small Group and All Star Sessions, and the inevitable catchall, Miscellaneous.
Concert Suites and High Concepts (See also the Live Recordings section)
A Drum is a Woman (Columbia COL 471320 2, European) Ellington's first recording after Newport represented his ambition to expand beyond the confines of conventional jazz concert and dance music. A musical pageant depicting the history of jazz in allegorical form, the score calls for three three singers, one of them an operatic soprano. Duke provides wry narration. Not well received at the time, but it is entertaining (if occasionally overblown) and contains some fine music.
Black, Brown and Beige (Columbia CK 64274). This 1958 retake on Duke's most ambitious work, fifteen years after its premiere, recasts BB&B as a vehicle for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Consequently the Blues section has been omitted, and the session's most characteristic instrumental sound is the yearning violin of Ray Nance, instead of the sensuous alto of Johnny Hodges. Jackson's reading of Come Sunday is definitive.
The Ellington Suites (Pablo J33J 20008, Japanese; USA releases also available) includes The Queen's Suite, a 1959 work dedicated to Elizabeth II. In Ellington's lifetime, only one copy was pressed and sent to Buckingham Palace. There is nothing daring or innovative in this suite, only sustained and concentrated beauty. The disc also offers The Goutelas Suite from 1971 and The UWIS Suite from 1972.
Anatomy of a Murder (Rykodisc RCD 10039). Many consider this 1959 soundtrack to be one of the best works of Ellington's later years. The remastering of the CD is impeccable.
Jazz Party (Columbia CK 40712), another 1959 session, offers the Toot Suite as part of an unusual program that also includes two percussion features and guest appearances by Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Rushing.
Three Suites (Columbia CK 46825) (1960) combines Ellington and Strayhorn's original, Steinbeck-inspired Suite Thursday with their curious adaptations of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites.
The Symphonic Ellington (Discovery 71003), from 1963, presents works for large forces, with the Ellington orchestra augmented by symphonic musicians. The exquisite Night Creature is here, as well as a fine rendition of the Harlem Suite (not Harlem Air Shaft, despite the claims of the notes) and two shorter pieces.
Studio Sessions: New York, Chicago 1965, 1966, 1971 (Kaz CD 508, European), is volume eight of the "Private Collection". It includes Duke's final take on his magnum opus, Black, Brown and Beige. This version is close in concept and length to the original 1943 version, and has the benefit of being well recorded. This disc also includes Ad Lib on Nippon and the often-recorded Harlem, making it a good survey of Ellington's lengthier work.
The Far East Suite (Bluebird 07863 66551-2), one of Ellington and Strayhorn's last collaborations, and arguably one of their best, the suite was inspired by the band's first Asian tour in 1963. It incorporates fleeting, impressionistic suggestions of the music of other cultures, and might be considered an early essay in world music. Especially notable is Ellington's dialog with bassist John Lamb in Ad Lib on Nippon, almost a suite within a suite. Recorded in 1966. This release includes four alternate takes; a previous CD issue (Bluebird 7649-2-RB) did not.
..And His Mother Called Him Bill (Bluebird 6287-2-RB), a 1967 memorial to Billy Strayhorn, who had died earlier that year, contains some of the band's most passionate performances.
Second Sacred Concert (Prestige PCD-24045-2) (1968) Ellington's sacred concerts were supremely important to him during his final years. Here the band is augmented with several choirs and solo singers, notably Alice Babs. Some of the recitations are weak, but the music forms a powerful expression of Duke's personal faith. Originally released on two LP records, two tracks were omitted from the CD release.
The Suites, New York, 1968 & 1970 (SAJA 7 91045-2), volume five of the "Private Collection" series from Duke's stockpile, offers the Degas Suite, composed for the soundtrack of a never-completed documentary film, featuring a reduced version of the band. The full band is heard on the ballet, The River, in a performance intended only as a rehearsal tape for the Alvin Ailey dance company.
Latin American Suite (Fantasy OJCCD-469-2) from 1968 (one track from 1970) lacks the finesse of most of Ellington's work, but demonstrates that even his lesser work can make for satisfying listening. The weaknesses of this set may demonstrate the difficulties Duke faced in composing music alone, after many years of collaborating with Strayhorn.
New Orleans Suite (Atlantic 1580-2) shows that in his final years, Ellington could still produce surprising and rewarding work. Recorded in 1970, this suite includes Johnny Hodges's last recordings; he died before the sessions were completed.
The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy OJCCD-645-2), like some of Ellington's best early work (not to mention the Far East Suite), draws its inspiration from the exotic sounds of distant lands. Although similar in many ways to the Latin American Suite, it comes together where that work does not. It is a gem. (Recorded in 1971.)
A few of many available (See also the Small Group section)
Live At Newport 1958 (Columbia/Legacy C2K 53584, two CDs) Returning to the scene of his 1956 triumph, Ellington was prepared to greet a hip and appreciative audience -- but not necessarily one with a lengthy attention span. A varied set largely focused on recent compositions of no medium length or less, but with an uneven procession of guest artists.
Dance Concerts, California, 1958 (LMR CD 83001) This engaging dance date at an Air Force Base demonstrates Ellington's contention that playing for dances fine-tuned his band's delicate sense of swing. Recorded three months before the Newport 1958 set, but entirely different, with a high percentage of non-original work and no recent compositions. No challenges, but thoroughly enjoyable. Volume two of the "Private Collection" series,
Such Sweet Thunder (Jazz Life CD 2673722) Typical of budget releases that can appear and disappear overnight, this disc features familiar material, recorded at various concerts in Sweden in 1958, 1959 and 1963. Recording quality is good but distant.
S.R.O. (LRC 33C38-7680, Japanese, other releases available) A good collection of live performances, allegedly 'recorded 1961 Europe,' but some tracks are unlikely to be more recent than 1959, while others were probably recorded after 1963. Some tracks were obviously mastered from an LP pressing; the ticks and pops are plainly audible.
Duke Ellington Live! at the Newport Jazz Festival '59 (Emarcy 842071-2) Yet another Newport set, featuring Idiom '59, a suite composed for the occasion. Uptempo numbers predominate in this rocking set.
The Great London Concerts (MusicMasters Jazz 01612-65106-2) A compilation of two different concerts in 1963 and 1964, this disc offers a well-balanced program, with a few newer pieces sprinkled among the old favorites. It includes renditions of Harlem and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic Jazz 304-2) Compiled from several concerts in Paris and elsewhere in February, 1963, this set provides a panoramic snapshot of the range of Ellington's repertoire at the time. Lots of old favorites are included, along with a few newer pieces, as well as Suite Thursday and Harlem.
In the Uncommon Market (Pablo PACD-2308-247-2) Compiled from a number of European concerts, no dates are given, but the band personnel listed is the same as on the 1963 Paris concert. The seven full-band tracks offer a good selection of mostly recent material, with little overlap with the Paris concert set. The most remarkable tracks on this disc, though, are three trio selections recorded at a private recital for painter Joan Miro.
Yale Concert (Fantasy OJCCD-664-2) This 1968 set features infrequently-heard material, notably The Little Purple Flower, as well as an intense medley featuring Johnny Hodges.
Togo Brava Suite (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 30082 2 3) Recorded at two concerts in England in 1971, this album illustrates the dilemma of Ellington's last years, having (in Gary Giddins's words) outlived his band. With few of the old-timers remaining, the band is undeniably weaker; still, there is much here that is as compelling and as pleasing to the ear as anything in Duke's vast body of work. The title suite is rewarding, and Norris Turney's tribute to Johnny Hodges, Checkered Hat, should not be missed. Despite some deficiencies, the music is still unmistakably Ellington.
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