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Love You Madly: Essential Ellington
"He invented a new system of harmony based on the blueswhole musical forms that have yet to be imitated.He believed that there were two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind..He wrote music about the human experience; if it was experienced, he stylized it." Wynton Marsalis in Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse
Edward Kennedy Ellington (April 29, 1899 to May 24, 1974) virtually defined and redefined Americas true art form, Jazz, in a prolific career that lasted over 50 years. He was the greatest composer of the twentieth century, a dynamic bandleader, and a terrific popular songwriter. To paraphrase Wynton, he liked simple songs with complicated developments and pretty endings.
And two great events have occurred that have brought Duke front and center into the consciousness of the American public. First , in 1999, we celebrated Duke's 100th birthday, a monumental year long affair featuring a flood of reissues from every major label that he recorded for including his entire recorded works for RCA (a 24 cd set!), all of his important mid period 50s and 60s Columbia records, and the somewhat obscure Capitol and Reprise recordings (Duke and the boys do Mary Poppins). Wynton Marsalis devoted his entire 1999 Lincoln Center concerts and events program to Duke (including a great April 99 performance at Powell Hall) to fully contemporize his legacy.
Then in January 2001, Ken Burns put his focus clearly on Duke and Louis Armstrong during much of his epic 9 episode PBS series, Jazz. Did you dig the late 60s/early70s interview clips of the elderly Duke as much as I did? So the last two years have been terrific for Duke-a-files, but with this resurgance, many are probably a bit overwhelmed by it all.
Where do you start with the music? Here is a subjective list of recordings that many critics and fans will name as essential. I have listed recordings from each decade of his career that are readily available on CD, and have updated the listings to cover the riches unearthed during the last couple of years.
Early Ellington-The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings, 1926- 31 (MCA/GRP 36402) These lively 78 RPM recordings feature the Duke1s men in their 20s, robust and working nightly in Harlem1s glamorous Cotton Club. Beautifully restored, this three disc set includes the first version of the great song "East St. Louis Toodle-O" and the debut recordings of Johnny Hodges, the great sax player and sideman who would always be identified with the Ellington sound.
Braggin in Brass-The Immortal 1938 Year (CBS/Portrait 44395) By this time Duke is writing music for the great individualistic sidemen in his band, creating a nonpareil whole which became his instrument. The musicians here are having a great deal of fun, creating vital music, melding into Duke's design as each moves towards his prime. Listen to the jaunty "Stevedore Stomp" (covered nicely by James Carter on his recent release "The Real Quiet Storm") and you'll feel the hot rhythms Duke's men were creating.
The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA/Bluebird 5659)
The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition, The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 (RCA 09026-63386-2)
Fargo North Dakota, November 7, 1940 (VGC 1019/20)
The recordings Ellington produced for Victor on the the three disc Blanton-Webster set represent his creative peak to date and are considered to be the definitive recordings of his career. It's at this point that newly arrived arranger, composer, and creative collaborator Billy Strayhorn brought all of his considerable talents to bear, including standards like "Take the A Train", "Chelsea Bridge," and "Raincheck." Two other additions to the line up include 21 year old virtuoso bassist Jimmy Blanton, who pioneered the technique of playing horn-like melodic lines on bass, and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who went on to set the standard for romantic ballad playing.
Special mention should be made here of The Complete RCA Victor recordings, the 24 cd monster that I mentioned earlier. The aforementioned Blanton Webster recordings of 1940-42 represent the focal point of the set, but indeed the output of 5 decades of recording here is staggering, and well worth the joyous effort to listen to. While Duke's prodigious talents were evident early on, he was also certainly in the right place at the right time due to the fact that his 20s Cotton Club gigs were beamed to the nation courtesy of the nascent CBS Radio network. Through these recordings Duke took the A Train to stardom. RCA has also released the material in smaller sets, but this one, all 24 discs may be the one desert island box you will ever need.
The Fargo set features the great 1940 band (Jimmie Blanton, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges et al.) and captures them in their real studio, a large dance hall--the venues they played non-stop, all year long (before James Brown, Duke was The Hardest Working Man in Show Business). Recorded by the brilliant sound engineer Jack Towers, then a college student, the set captures the band on a majestic evening.
Piano Reflections (Capitol-out of print, sadly) Recorded in 1953, Piano Reflections presents Duke in a trio setting and clearly establishes him as a brilliant pianist. The album features dissonant, wistful songs like "Melancholia" and the prayer-like "Reflections in D." You can get it via mail order or on the web through Mosaic Records as part of The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington. Check it out at www.mosaicrecords.com.
Ellington at Newport (CBS 40587) By July 7, 1956, after nearly 30 years at the top, Duke had begun to be taken for granted by the public. In 1951 he had suffered through the defections of long time stalwarts Hodges, Sony Greer, and Lawrence Brown, and had shifted his focus to composing serious music for the concert hall.
But on this night, startling a sleepy crowd as his set began after midnight, one piece"Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," powered by Paul Gonzalves' brilliant 27 chorus tenor solo-- drove the crowd wild and reestablished the Ellington Band1s stature as the greatest jazz orchestra in the world. Three weeks later Duke landed on the cover of Time Magazine. In 1999 Columbia Legacy released the definitive version of the recording - the first time in Stereo, and for the first time, the entire concert as performed.
And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA/Bluebird 6287) The death of Billy Strayhorn in 1967 was traumatic for Duke and the band. This tribute album, comprised solely of Ellington-Strayhorn compositions, includes inspired performances, heart felt passion, and a sense of deep sorrow for Strayhorn1s passing. Every emotion is covered here, from celebration to melancholy to anger as the band tries to come to grips with their loss. Johnny Hodges in particular shines throughout.
Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse 162) and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse 166)
Both of these recordings feature Duke in small groups in collaboration with great tenor men. Recorded in August and September 1962, Duke adds his own distinctive touch to the rhythm sections of the two tenor stylists. And Impulse has reissued both in magnificent 20 bit sound.
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, The Great Summit/The Master Takes (Capitol/EMI 7243)
I suppose this masterpiece is filed under Armstrong, but I had to include it as a prime example of Duke's ability to collaberate, check his huge ego and through relaxed collaberation with Louis, come up with something really special. These two giants and a small group define the word swing with these romps through the Ellington songbook. Louis invites us all to Duke's Place in the opening track and from there on the party gets hot! Mood Indigo, Do Nothin Till You hear From Me, In a Mellow Tone, and the sublime Azalea pour forth from the hearts of The Duke and Satchmo. Essential stuff here.
Duke Ellington, The Reprise Studio Sessions
Duke said of The Twist, the dance craze that overtook the nation in 1962, "The Twist is bringing people back to dancing which I think is a very good thing...With everyone in the whole world doing the Twist, you're out of step if you don't do it. I do it. I don't like to be old." In 1962 Duke signed on with Frank Sinatras fledgling Reprise Records during a period when the jazz greats were falling out of favor to upstart pop singers and rock n roll. Duke was in his sixties, but instead of slowing down, he was picking up speed.
These often overlooked sides have been released with all of the care and thoroughness that are the hallmarks of Mosaic Records . There are revelations throughout, but undoubtedly the highlight is "Afro Bossa" an exoctic, quickly conceived album inspired by Duke's extensive world travels at the time. " Mary Poppins" is a leftfield delight (A Spoonful of Sugar indeed) and " The Jazz Violin Session" sparkles, successfully integrating strings into the mix.
New Orleans Suite (Atlantic 1580) The Crescent City, long an incubator of inspiration, is honored by Ellington on this 1970 recording. Johnny Hodges plays the final recorded notes before his death, and wails on "Blues for New Orleans." The Suite consists of five movements and four portraits celebrating the life of Louis Armstrong, Wellman Braud, Sidney Bechet, and Mahalia Jackson.
So there you have it. These 13 recordings are a mere sampling of the musical genius of Duke. Listen to his music, read about him, study him, and if you have kids, encourage them to learn, too. Discover the Duke and you will discover wondrous treasures that will inspire you forever.