Part 4, 1956 - 1974
Small groups and miscellaneous sessions
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Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues Back to Back (Verve 823 637-2) This 1959 session features Duke and Hodges wailing on some classic blues in a sextet setting. No other Ellingtonians are present (although two Basie veterans are heard), and no Ellington originals are played. A good outing for Ellington the pianist, showing his skill as soloist and accompanist.
Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges: Side by Side (Verve 821 578-2) A very satisfying album, but a somewhat dishonest follow-up to the above, this contains three outtakes from the Back to Back session. Duke is not heard on the other six tracks, which are from an earlier Hodges session with Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Lawrence Brown. Strayhorn is on piano. Oddly enough, this album is more recognizably Ellingtonian than Back to Back.
Unknown Session (French Columbia COL 472084 2) A 1960 septet session, reminiscent of the small-groups sessions of the 1930s. Fine playing from Duke, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney on a set of mostly older compositions, Very relaxed, but it never stops swinging.
Piano in the Foreground (Columbia COL 474930, European). In this 1961 session, Ellington returns to the piano trio setting of Piano Reflections, but with a modernist edge added. Besides the expected original compositions, Duke shows himself to be an imaginative interpreter of other people's standards, such as Body and Soul and Summertime. Drummer Sam Woodyard often plays a crucial, propulsive role.
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions (Roulette CDP 7938442) Duke sits in at the piano in Armstrong's sextet (which then included Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard) for an all-Ellington program. This 1961 pairing works much better than might have been expected, as these two giants blend their very different and distinctive styles into a unified whole.
Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! IMPD-162, ) No surprises in this 1962 date. The inventor of jazz tenor saxophone fits in well with a septet drawn from the ranks of the Ellington orchestra. The standout track is an inspired reading of Solitude, which was omitted from the original LP, as well as a previous reissue on CD (MCA/Impulse! MCAD-5650 JVC-461).
Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach: Money Jungle (Blue Note CDP 7 46398 2) Recognizably Ellington, but with a boppish modernism not found in his other work, Still, there is nothing shocking or overtly revolutionary here; Ellington's style, which had anticipated many of the advances of bebop, blends well with that of his colleagues on this 1962 trio session.
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse! MCAD-39103 -- reissued since with a different catalog number) Perhaps the least comfortable of Ellington's 1962 collaborative sessions with other jazz luminaries, but also the most remarkable, Playing in a quartet setting -- sometimes with Duke's bass and drums, sometimes with Coltrane's -- each of these masters must, in turn, give up something of his familiar identity in order to arrive at an unprecedented amalgam. There are tentative moments, but it works.
The Pianist (Fantasy OJCCD-717-2) Piano trio recordings from 1966 and 1970. Ellington demonstrates his versatility as a pianist, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the blues. Two of the later tracks feature two bass players.
The Duke Ellington Small Bands: The Intimacy of the Blues (Fantasy OJCCD-624-2) In a 1966 session reminiscent of Duke's small groups of the 1930s, a group of all-stars from the band play Ellington & Strayhorn's Combo Suite. This is coupled with several tracks from 1970, some of which feature organist Wild Bill Davis.
Live at the Whitney (Impulse! IMPD-173) About half of this 1972 piano recital is performed solo, the rest in a trio setting. The piano player moves effortlessly from his very first composition to some of his most recent, Especially notable is the solo piano rendition of New World A-Coming,
Duke Ellington and Ray Brown: This One's for Blanton (Pablo/Analogue Productions CAPJ 015) This 1973 (or 1972) set revisits some of Ellington's classic duets with Jimmy Blanton, as well as a new, jointly composed work, Fragmented Suite for Piano and Bass.
Potboilers, oddities, and commonplace treasures
Studio Sessions, Chicago, 1956 (LMR CD 83000) Volume one of the "Private Collection." Most of the tracks on this date come from sessions in March of 1956, predating the historic Newport appearance. Some of the energy that would drive the band at the jazz festival is already evident here. A set-closing, long, slow blues is memorable. Aside from that, this disc, like several others in this category, is unexceptional, everyday Ellington. In other words, it is frequently wonderful and occasionally inspired, but it is easily overshadowed by more significant titles in the Ellington canon. Still, if you have ears, you will not be bored.
Ellington Indigos (Columbia CK 44444) A 1957 album, made frankly in pursuit of sales to the "easy listening" market, Indigos offers new arrangements of three Ellington trademark standards in a program consisting otherwise of non-Ellington compositions. Sumptuous but unchallenging, this set has the merit of presenting several soloists to good effect, including the piano player.
Blues in Orbit (Columbia CK 44051) Comprised of sessions recorded early in 1958 and late in 1959, this album focuses on new and improvisational blues tunes, with a handful of more familiar titles thrown in. A very solid, satisfying romp.
The Duke's D.J. Special (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 141, European) This 1959 session is an oddity, recorded for the performing rights agency SESAC and distributed to radio stations as part of a campaign to get airplay for music licensed through SESAC. As an ASCAP composer, Duke is not credited with any of the compositions, but according to David Hajdu, one track, Frou-Frou, is a pseudonymous Strayhorn work. Band arranger Dick Vance and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton appear to be among the other composers. The charts range from distinctively Ellingtonian to generic big band, but the soloists maintain the Ellington trademark.
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.
Piano in the Background (Columbia COL 468404 2, European) This 1960 session features the full band playing highly polished arrangements of nine Ellington and Strayhorn standards. The title indicates that Duke is indeed present at the piano, unlike some of his studio sessions, and each number begins with a piano intro.
Featuring Paul Gonsalves (Fantasy OJCCD-623-2) At this 1962 session, Duke decreed that his able but under-appreciated tenor sax player would be the sole soloist. The result: startlingly different versions of some familiar tunes in a set suffused with a warm glow. There's much fun in Gonsalves's take on Happy-Go-Lucky Local, which saxophonist Jimmy Forest had "borrowed" from Duke a few years earlier as Night Train.
Studio Sessions, New York, 1962 (Saja 7 91043-2) Volume three of the "Private Collection" series, this disc also features an unusually high proportion of Gonsalves solos. It also has tracks from Cootie Williams's first session with the band in twenty-two years, and what may well be your only opportunity to hear Duke play a Thelonious Monk composition. On the other hand, there are two vocals by Milt Grayson.
Recollections of the Big Band Era (Atlantic Jazz 7 90043-2) Obviously intended to appeal to the audience for big band nostalgia, this disc contains not a single Ellington composition. The concept is dubious: the most distinctive band that was active during the swing era (as well as long before and after it) performs the signature tunes of twenty-three other bands. But the arrangements sometimes turn these hoary standards on end. Strayhorn's arrangement of Stan Kenton's Artistry in Rhythm is especially striking. Not Ellington's best work by any means, but much better than expected. (Recorded in 1962-63.)
Afro-Bossa (Discovery 71002) A glittering showcase of exotica, this album achieves dazzle without flash. Augmented by an enthusiastic auxiliary percussion section, the band runs through a program of mostly recent compositions (as of the recording dates in late 1962 and early 1963), with a few older but rather obscure numbers. Many fans would put this disc in the 'major works' category, and they have a point.
Studio Sessions, New York, 1963 (Saja 7 91044-2) Volume four of the "Private Collection" series, this CD contains three complete sessions of mostly new material. A few tracks suffer from the tentative sound of a first run-through (when compared to later, more developed versions of the same compositions), but overall this is a fine set, providing more rewarding listening than some of Duke's released recordings from this era.
Jump For Joy (Laser CD 15012) A budget release with no notes, but a very good collection of live and studio performances, several of which feature Ray Nance prominently. My guess is that some of these tracks were recorded for broadcast during the 1963 European tour; others may date from the 1959 tour.
New Mood Indigo (Doctor Jazz WK 403259) A curious compilation. Seven tracks by the full orchestra (the title track, from 1964, three from 1962, and three from 1966) have been coupled with four tracks by a 1966 Mercer Ellington Septet. The septet is made up of familiar Ellington veterans, with the exception of the pianist... Chick Corea. In this case, the combination works, and the album holds together surprisingly well.
The Popular Duke Ellington (BMG 09026-68705-2) Yet another run-through of greatest hits, this time from 1966. New new insights are added this time, but the playing is fine throughout and the sound is beautifully recorded. Out of eleven standards included, five are stretched to the five-minute range, allowing more solo time all around.
Studio Sessions, New York, 1968 (Saja 91233-2) Volume nine of the 'Private Collection'; several tracks showcase the tenor sax of Harold Ashby, then the newest member of the band. A very satisfying collection of new material and reworkings of old favorites.
Cool Rock (LaserLight 15 782) A collection of stockpile recordings from the mid 60s and early 70s, includes four previously-unreleased Ellington originals.
Up in Duke's Workshop (Pablo OJCCD-633-2) In the late 1970s, Pablo issued some of the first extracts from Ellington's massive stockpile of unreleased recordings. This disc offers consistently fine material by the full band, recorded between 1969 and 1972. Stanley Dance's liner notes seem to be accurate, but the personnel listings and recording dates are hopelessly scrambled.
The Intimate Ellington (Pablo OJCCD-730-2) A mixed bag of recordings by the full band and two piano trio tracks, plus Moon Maiden, a vocal/celeste solo by Duke. All tracks recorded between 1969 and 1971.
Duke Ellington & Teresa Brewer: It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing (Columbia CK 37340) While Teresa Brewer is not the best singer who ever benefited from Ellington's accompaniment, she is far from the worst. Recorded in September, 1973, this program of all-Ellington compositions includes some predictable standards, as well as four less well-known songs, two of which had not been recorded before. Although the band's decline is unmistakable, it is still sometimes a commanding presence, even though much of the attention has shifted to Duke's piano. Not one of Ellington's masterworks, but an entertaining and skillfully played gig, and a fitting curtain call for a long and distinguished musical career.
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