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Duke Ellington And His Orchestra

Reviewed on this page:
Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick And Vocalion Recordings Of Duke Ellington - Small Groups, Vol. 1 - Braggin' In Brass: The Immortal 1938 Year - Volume III - Live At Fargo North Dakota November 7, 1940 - 1941 Classics - The Blanton-Webster Band - The Carnegie Hall Concerts (January 1943) - The Carnegie Hall Concerts (December 1944) - The Great Chicago Concerts - Liberian Suite - Cornell University Concert - Monologue - Uptown - A Drum Is A Woman - The Private Collection Volume One: Studio Sessions Chicago 1956 - Ellington Indigos - Blues In Orbit - Jazz Party - Side By Side - Piano In The Background - The Nutcracker Suite - Peer Gynt/Suite Thursday - First Time! The Count Meets The Duke - Money Jungle - Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins - Such Sweet Thunder (1963) - In The Uncommon Market - The Great Paris Concert - The Great London Concerts - Far East Suite - ...And His Mother Called Him Bill - Yale Concert - 70th Birthday Concert - The Pianist - Latin American Suite - The Intimacy Of The Blues - New Orleans Suite - The Ellington Suites - Eastbourne Performance

It's hard to overstate the contribution of bandleader/composer/pianist Duke Ellington - but I'm going to try. Calling him jazz's most important composer is accurate, but doesn't do him justice: he's a central figure in the development of 20th Century popular music. Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington DC, but he moved to New York in his early twenties and kept his mailbox there - though he spent most of his time on the road - for the rest of his life. A multi-year engagement at the Cotton Club during its Roaring Twenties heyday established him as a consummate entertainer and bandleader, and he next set his sights on being recognized as a major composer like Gershwin, playing concerts in Carnegie Hall where he premiered extended works like "Black, Brown And Beige." Despite various ups and down, he kept going into the 1970s, alternating between raucous dance dates and concert performances. (Though the ambitious pieces helped build Ellington's reputation as "more than a jazzman," for my money he was at his best in the three- to five-minute song format - but then, I think the same of Mozart.)

Ellington recorded with singers from Mae West to Billie Holiday to Teresa Brewer; he played with jazz figures from Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt to Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. But mostly what he did was lead his own band, and some days I think his greatest achievement was keeping together such an impressive collection of musicians: hardly any of his key players died young or were ruined by drugs, and though several of them split to lead bands of their own, nearly all returned to the fold sooner or later. Partly that's because Ellington had an enviable talent for writing tunes that would show off each soloist to best advantage: no one sounded as good outside his orchestra as they did inside it. He had a similarly symbiotic relationship with the brilliant composer/arranger/pianist Billy Strayhorn, who did far more of Ellington's composing or arranging than was publicly acknowledged while Ellington enabled Strayhorn to follow his muse without having to worry about public scrutiny, bandleading or business details. (Strayhorn too left Ellington in the mid-50s but soon returned.)

There are maybe three hundred Ellington albums, so what I have here is just a sampling; Rude Interlude gives a nice overview, and The Duke Ellington Panorama is mind-bogglingly thorough. And I've reviewed Ellington's autobiography and a fine biography of Strayhorn on our book review page. (DBW)

Duke Ellington's compositions have permeated the culture, and here are links to recordings reviewed elsewhere on this site:

Also note a few tributes: Miles Davis's "The Duke" and "He Loved Him Madly," Mingus's "Open Letter To Duke" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke."

Selected list of personnel:
Duke Ellington, piano; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Johnny Hodges, Russel Procope, alto sax; Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, tenor sax; Harry Carney, baritone sax, clarinet; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Ray Nance, trumpet and violin; Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, trombone; Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet; Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sonny Greer, Louis Bellson, drums; Ivie Anderson, Kay Davis, vocals.

Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick And Vocalion Recordings Of Duke Ellington (rec. 1926-1931, rel. 1994)
This was a prolific period: according to the liner notes, this 67-song, 3-CD set represents about a quarter of the music Ellington recorded during these six years. There are 25 Ellington originals here, nearly all of which were unfamiliar to me (exceptions including "Black And Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo," "Rockin' In Rhythm" and "The Mooche"). While the thoroughness of the compilation, documentation and packaging are astonishing, and the sound quality is pretty good, this is no collection for an Ellington neophyte: there are a ton of indistinguishable jaunty blues-based tunes ("Immigration Blues"), many with alternate takes, and the soloists (including Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams) aren't as impressive as they would later become (remarkably smooth clarinetist Barney Bigard is an exception). Oh, and maybe it's just me, but Fred Guy's banjo accompaniment is irredeemably corny. Aside from a few goodies ("Awful Sad," "Red Hot Band" - both aptly titled) it can be a challenge to keep paying attention, unless you're the kind of person who goes to Woody Allen movies to listen to the ancient swing 78s. (DBW)

Small Groups, Vol. 1 (rec. 1934-1938)
Two CDs of recordings by a number of small bands drawn from the Ellington orchestra, each with a different leader, and frequently with the Duke on piano. The relaxed atmosphere (almost all the arrangements were improvised) and limited instrumentation make for some great solos (Bigard on "Stompy Jones" and "Frolic Sam"), but few of the compositions are masterpieces, apart from the dramatic Cootie Williams feature "Echoes Of Harlem" and the first recording of the standard "Caravan" (credited to Ellington, trombonist Juan Tizol and publisher Irving Mills). Also, several songs have vocals, and though "Get It Southern Style" (with Sue Mitchell) is fine, many range from tacky ("You'll Never Go To Heaven" with Buddy Clark) to grating (the jokey group vocal "Peckin'"). While most of the tunes are uptempo, "Indigo Echoes" is a nice early example of the bittersweet melancholy Ellington expressed so beautifully ("Blue Reverie" is similar but less memorable). Not a banjo to be heard, but there is some groovy Hawaiian guitar by Celle Burke on "Lazy Man's Shuffle." (DBW)

Braggin' In Brass: The Immortal 1938 Year (1938)
A two-CD set; the best known tunes are the ballads "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" and "Prelude To A Kiss," and a reworked "Black And Tan Fantasy" (split into two parts to get around the time limitation of 78s). However, there's a lot of other material I find more striking, in Ellington's various styles: pensive mood pieces ("Lost In Meditation"), catchy uptempo swing ("The Gal From Joe's," "Hip Chic"), lyrical exotica ("A Gypsy Without A Song," "Pyramid" - both written with Tizol), even vocal numbers ("You Gave Me The Gate (And I'm Swingin')" with a tongue-in-cheek yet assertive vocal by Ivie Anderson). The arrangements aren't as striking and the soloists aren't featured as prominently as on later work, but they're getting there: "T.T. On Toast" and "Jazz Potpourri" are mini-symphonies with lovely soloing from Bigard, Hodges and Stewart. The presentation is a little chintzier than other Ellington compilations: just sixteen three-minute songs per disc, and a general essay (by Nat Hentoff) in lieu of detailed notes. (DBW)

Volume III (rec. 1937 and 1940)
This LP from Everest Archives has one side pulled from a March 1937 Cotton Club performance, and the other from a Boston club in September 1940. As usual with Everest Archives, the source is dubious and the sound quality is poor, but the performances are worth hearing. The 1937 set contains early live versions of several hits - "Caravan," "Sophisticated Lady," "Rockin' In Rhythm" - but even more interesting is the 1933 obscurity "Harlem Speaks." Just for variety, Ivie Anderson sings "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." The songs on the 1940 side are less familiar - "Little Posey (A Portrait Of Freddy Jenkins)," "The Gal From Joe's" - but no less impressive: the highlight is an early Ellington-Strayhorn composition, "Grievin'," that manages to be both melancholy and sly. (DBW)

Live At Fargo North Dakota November 7, 1940 (1940)
Rapid changes took place in late 1939 and 1940 with the arrival of composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, bassist Jimmy Blanton, and tenor sax player Ben Webster. At least for me, this is where Ellington becomes ELLINGTON: the compositions and performances are first-rate, complex but coherent jazz that can be appreciated without listening to them with nostalgia or in the guise of an amateur musicologist. This 2-CD set is often ranked as the best live Ellington available, and it does feature a bunch of excellent new compositions: the Hodges showpieces "Warm Valley" and "No Lament Blues" (better known as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"); "Ko-Ko"; "Cotton Tail"; and "Rumpus In Richmond." Plus, older successes like "Mood Indigo" and "Rockin' In Rhythm" extended past the three-minute boundary imposed by 78s: "Sepia Panorama" and Rex Stewart's feature "Boy Meets Horn" are greatly aided by longer and more enthusiastic solo statements than the studio versions. On the other hand, the sound quality is problematic (there's extreme scratchiness, and a radio announcer occasionally talks over the songs), and a ton of undistinguished cover tunes clutter up the track list ("The Sheik Of Araby," "Five O'Clock Whistle"), so I can't rate this as high as a lot of critics do. (DBW)

1941 Classics (1941)
Recorded at two Hollywood dates - January 15 and September 17 - for Standard, and the material is divided in three parts: Ellington originals which the orchestra never played again, popular songs of the day which the orchestra never played again, and Strayhorn originals which are, in fact, classics. "Take The 'A' Train," which soon became the band's theme, is the best known of the four Strayhorn tunes, but the lush "Chelsea Bridge" is nearly as memorable, and "Clementine" and "After All" are well constructed if more ordinary. The outside pop songs are nothing to linger on (Herb Jeffries singing "I Hear A Rhapsody"; Ivie Anderson on "Love And I"), while Ellington's compositions are simple and effective, from the lyrical Webster feature "Until Tonight" to the moody "It's Sad But True" to the uptempo "West Indian Stomp." And most of the songs which aren't obscure - including Mercer Ellington's "John Hardy's Wife" - were recorded before the canonical versions contained on Blanton-Webster Band. So historical interest is high, but I can't recommend the record for a general audience because the recording quality is shaky - Blanton's bass is almost totally inaudible - the neglected Ellington pieces aren't any better than his non-neglected ones, and the pre-hit takes don't contain any notable surprises. (DBW)

The Blanton-Webster Band (rec. 1940-1942, rel. 1986)
A three-CD set comprising the recordings Ellington made for Victor between 1940 and 1942, including songs from the show Jump For Joy. Many of the band's best known tunes are here in their original hit versions (as K-Tel would say): "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "No Lament Blues," "Sentimental Lady" (AKA "I Didn't Know About You"), "The 'C' Jam Blues," "Perdido," "Warm Valley," and best known of all, Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train." The B-team is pretty devastating as well - "Cottontail," "In A Mellotone," "Harlem Airshaft," "Concerto For Cootie," "Dusk," the Blanton exhibition "Jack The Bear," Tizol's "Bakiff," Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkins" - and maybe even more impressive is the parade of top-notch tracks that never became standards: Mercer's desolate "Blue Serge" and "Moon Mist"; Duke's solemn "Blue Goose" and furious "Giddybug Gallop," Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge." And with 66 tunes, it's easy to forgive the few duds, mostly vocal numbers ("There Shall Be No Night," crooned by Bing Crosby imitator Herb Jeffries). Liner notes for Ellington compilations are generally high-quality, but these are truly exceptional, not only supplying overall background but also detailed commentary on every track. (DBW)

The Carnegie Hall Concerts (January 1943) (rec. 1943)
A two-CD set of material mostly from the Blanton-Webster period - "Cottontail," "Moon Mist" - plus some choice oldies ("Mood Indigo," "Black And Tan Fantasy") and the languid, rarely heard "Blue Belles Of Harlem." An important concert for Ellington - premiering his ambitious "Black, Brown And Beige" suite - but not a great one, despite the magnificent track list. The hour-long suite bogs down more often than not: though there are lovely sections (the second part of "Beige," for example), overall it reaches too hard for a Grand Statement and ends up not very much fun. Meanwhile, the band seems a bit nervous: Hodges races through "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with a ton of needless notes instead of his usual steady sureness. The band was out of the studio from late 1942 until late 1944 because of a union recording ban; I think the musicians' union was afraid that recorded music was basically going to drive big bands out of business (correctly, it turns out). (DBW)

The Carnegie Hall Concerts (December 1944) (rec. 1944, rel. 1977)
A two-CD set that was cut down to double-LP length; I don't know which performances are missing, though producer Orrin Keepnews notes that they're either vocal numbers or very frequently recorded Ellington standards. Anyway, the major work premiered here was the "Perfume Suite," which includes two mediocre pieces (Strayhorn's dry "Sonata" and vague "Strange Feeling") and two excellent ones: the finger-snapping Ellington feature "Dancers In Love" and the dramatic "Coloratura." A downsized version of "Black, Brown And Beige" comes across much better than the hour-long original, though Marie Ellington's performance of "The Blues" is as insincere a blues as I've ever heard. There's also some offbeat material (the lovely "Blue Cellophane"; Strayhorn's "Midriff") and some big hits ("It Don't Mean A Thing"; "Things Ain't What They Used To Be"). (DBW)

The Great Chicago Concerts (rec. 1946, rel. 1994)
A double album drawn from two 1946 dates. Between the two shows many standards are covered - "Take The 'A' Train," "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," "Caravan" - but there are also many rarely-heard originals that are worth checking out ("The Golden Feather," the Hodges feature "Magenta Haze") and a bunch of surprises. The extended works - January 20 features the three-part "Tonal Group," November 10 has the four-part "Deep South Suite" - are only intermittently terrific: "Deep South"'s "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" is rousing and contemplative, while "There Was Nobody Looking" is unaccompanied piano with a gorgeous midtempo piece spoiled by an incongruously jumpy chorus. "Tonal Group"'s "Fugue" is moving and creepy, but it's surrounded by routine midtempo swing. The January concert contains showpieces for trombonist Lawrence Brown ("Circe"), trumpeter Cat Anderson ("Coloratura") and Ellington ("Dancers In Love"), but none of them are mere blowing vehicles: they're involving, rewarding compositions. In November, Jimmy Hamilton gives a terrifying display of virtuosity on clarinet in "The Air-Conditioned Jungle," a classically-influenced piece that contrasts Hamilton solo sections with the full orchestra, but the real treat is four tunes featuring jazz guitar pioneer Django Reinhardt. He's better heard than usual - thanks to shockingly good sound quality and frequent pauses by the orchestra - and he's incredible, now exploring complex harmonies, now tearing off rapid-fire blues riffs, never sounding tentative or hackneyed, he's the beginning and the end of jazz guitar ("Improvisation #2"). (DBW)

Liberian Suite (rec. 1947)
This six-part work - the last Ellington recording on lacquer disc before the switch to magnetic tape - has had a spotty release history, appearing on 10" LP, in the CBS Do You Like Jazz sampler series, and on the French CD The Complete Duke Ellington Volume 5. But it's not a lost classic: the opening vocal number "I Like The Sunrise" is tacky, and the five dances don't hang together: "Dance 1" takes its seriousness too seriously; "Dance 2" falls apart completely during a vibraphone break; the third and fourth are forgettable themes with no solos to speak of. "Dance 5" has some lovely moments, including a wah-wah trumpet section near the end, but it gets lost among a plethora of mediocre themes. Most Ellington suites have at least one outstanding composition, but this one sounds like a toss-off from beginning to end. (DBW)

Cornell University Concert (1948)
Recorded in December 1948; another recording ban had kept the band out of the studio all year, so there's a lot of unfamiliar material here. Once again, the new major pieces aren't highlights: the two-part "Symphomaniac" is a Ellington-Strayhorn parody of symphonic jazz (which might be funny if I knew more about symphonic jazz); "The Tattooed Bride" is a well-developed piece with some great speedy runs by Hamilton, but the theme isn't particularly memorable. Fortunately, there are a ton of shorter works, some which later turned up on Monologue - "Lady Of The Lavender Mist," "Hy'a Sue," Strayhorn's "Brown Betty" - and others which disappeared completely ("My Friend," Strayhorn's "Paradise," a pensive feature for Carney's baritone). And there's some much older material: "Creole Love Call," a full nine-minute version of "Reminiscing In Tempo," and a new arrangement of "Limestone Blues" featuring trombonist Tyree Glynn doubling on vibes. Aside from the concluding medley - more tightly arranged and better structured than his later "dashing off the hits" finales - there's almost nothing duplicated from the Fargo or Chicago shows, if you're thinking of collecting them all. Available on two single CDs. (DBW)

Monologue (rec. 1947-1951, rel. 1972)
A collection of generally overlooked 78 sides, mostly from 1947 with a few from 1951. None of the tunes were frequently recorded by Ellington aside from the uptempo "Smada," but there's great stuff here, in a mix of styles: "On A Turquoise Cloud" is an unearthly mood piece with a soprano vocalist (Kay Davis) tucked in with the reeds, an effect Ellington had pioneered on 1927's "Creole Love Call." "Stomp Look And Listen" is a carefree uptempo number, "New York City Blues" is a piano-led lament, while the title track is an amusing narration from Duke with occasional sly backing. "Change My Ways" has an incredibly lyrical Nance violin solo. "Sultry Serenade" is more lively than you'd expect, but Lawrence Brown's trombone solo delivers the sensuality the title implies. Even the corny vocal "Women (They'll Get You)" has a tricky syncopated arrangement. Too bad "You're Just An Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist," a Ray Nance vocal feature also recorded in 1947, wasn't included as well. (DBW)

Uptown (1953)
By now the LP format was displacing 78s, and Ellington reacted by recording extended versions of past hits, and by concentrating on lengthy ambitious suites (which he'd been writing occasionally as far back as 1935's "Reminiscing In Tempo"). There's some of each in this big band - twelve to fourteen horns plus rhythm section - album: "Take The 'A' Train" gets a new multipart structure, with a piano intro leading to Betty Roché reprising her 1943 vocal, then the tempo dropping for a languid Paul Gonzalves sax feature, then a rapid, high-flying finale. "The Mooche" includes a very fine clarinet duet between Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope, as one plays upper-register obbligati while the other plays melodically in the instrument's low range. On the suite side, there's "A Tone Parallel To Harlem," a tightly arranged set of fragmentary pieces. The "Controversial Suite" has two parts: a compilation of Dixieland conventions (subtitled "Before My Time"), and a creepy angular piece with strong triplet syncopation and a loud ticking clock. Assuming it's a parody a la "Symphomaniac," it's still too long. Then there's "Skin Deep," just an excuse for a long, noisy drum solo from Louis Bellson: I rate it above "Toad," about even with "Moby Dick," but that's not saying much. As a whole, the disc is more interesting to read about than to listen to - there's a lot that's unusual but precious little I find satisfying. (DBW)

A Drum Is A Woman (1956)
When I heard this allegorical jazz opera in my 9th grade music class, I thought it was diffuse and pointless, but nowadays I have more appreciation for its audacity and scope. Ellington, the epitome of urban sophistication, incorporates African drum solos and a calypso number ("What Else Can You Do With A Drum") into his telling of the birth of jazz via the love story of Carribee Joe and Madame Zajj. There are some repeated themes ("A Drum Is A Woman," "Carribee Joe") and aria-like vocals from Margaret Tynes, Joya Sherrill and Ozzie Bailey, set opposite pure big band pieces with then-retro features like clarinet solos ("Congo Square"), and even some Bartokian dissonance (presumably Strayhorn's doing). Considering how much narration there is (from Duke), the story really should be easier to follow, and given the subject matter, you'd expect a few more raw thrills - "Rhumbop" is one of the few boisterous cuts. On the other hand, Ellington and Strayhorn really do pull off every style they attempt, Tynes and Sherrill are impressive, and the band is so good they make even random trumpet noodling ("Hey, Buddy Bolden") riveting. As failed concept albums go, this is in the first rank, with The Rainbow Children. (DBW)

The Private Collection Volume One: Studio Sessions Chicago 1956 (1956)
Recordings made at Ellington's own expense; apparently not intended to be released, but I'm sure glad they were. There's some otherwise unheard material like the swinging "Discontented Blues" and the lovely "Do Not Disturb," but some of the familiar tunes are just as valuable: "Jump For Joy" has a slower, more quiet arrangement featuring Hamilton's easy facility on clarinet; Mercer Ellington's "Moon Mist" is rearranged with the background instruments more prominent than the foreground, and it's lovelier than ever. Meanwhile, Hodges outdoes himself - no mean feat - on "In A Sentimental Mood." Unfortunately, it's not all at that level: "Satin Doll" has an overly mellow arrangement with a couple of disconcerting crescendos, and the interpretation of "Prelude To A Kiss" adds nothing to the more commonly available versions. (DBW)

Ellington Indigos (1957)
The liner notes call this "Duke's dance album," but don't mention that all the dancing involved is slow: the tempo never rises above moderate. And since there are just four Ellington compositions (only "The Sky Fell Down" is new), it's easy to class this as a minor work. But it's a blast, largely because the relaxed format leaves space for some remarkable solos: Nance plays some of the most exquisite violin I've ever heard on the standard "Autumn Leaves" - which also features the disc's only singing, from Ozzie Bailey - then returns to his usual trumpet on "The Sky Fell Down"; Hodges plays his usual luminous sax on the lovely "Prelude To A Kiss," and the Duke himself sounds great on his piano features, his own "Solitude" and the standard "Willow Weep For Me." The horns lay out most of the time, providing an unusually loose feel. The CD release (which I don't have) includes two bonus tracks and substitutes an alternate take of "Autumn Leaves" for the original. (DBW)

Such Sweet Thunder (1957)
I don't have this collection of Shakespeare-inspired Ellington/Strayhorn compositions; I'm listing it to avoid confusion with the later European live album of the same title (DBW)

Blues In Orbit (1958)
Indeed, blues are prominent here: after the Ellington-Strayhorn title track, there's Jimmy Hamilton's "Three J's Blues"; the Ellington staple "C Jam Blues"; the rousing "Villes Ville Is The Place, Man"; and "Blues In Blueprint," an eerie, skeletal arrangement with the bass carried by Harry Carney's bass clarinet. "Brown Penny," originally written for the 1946 musical Beggar's Holiday, isn't a blues in form but it's about as blue as you can get. Covering a range of moods across compositions old and new, with combos ranging from nine to sixteen members, this set summarizes many of the things Ellington did best. My reissue contains a few additional tunes, including a heartwrenching Hodges reading of "I Didn't Know About You." (DBW)

Jazz Party (1959)
A jumble of styles and approaches, all more or less successful. The twenty-minute "Toot Suite" consists of half a dozen pieces ranging in tone from the neo-classical "Red Shoes" to the muted trumpet blues (played by Quentin Jackson) "Red Carpet (Part 2)." "Red Shoes" and "Red Carpet (Part 1)" offer contrasting clarinet approaches: Jimmy Hamilton races through the upper register in the former, and Russell Procope follows with a low, lyrical statement in the latter. The final section, "Ready, Go!," is an extended Paul Gonsalves solo - he tends to fall into R&B cliché at times, but he's never dull. Hodges isn't featured in the suite, but he is at his most lively on the standard "All Of Me." On "Malletoba Spank" - one of Ellington and Strayhorn's most playful compositions - the theme carried by a percussion section playing xylophones, vibes and glockenspiels; the less thrilling "Tymperturbably Yours" features the same players on nine tympani. Guest Dizzy Gillespie is the featured player on Strayhorn's "U.M.M.G.," and he sticks around for the finale "Hello Little Girl," with Basie alumnus Jimmy Jones taking over piano and blues shouter Jimmy Rushing on vocals. (DBW)

Side By Side (Duke Ellington And Johnny Hodges: 1959)
Basically this is a Johnny Hodges solo album: of the eight tunes, Ellington only appears on three (Strayhorn's on piano for the rest), and wrote two and a half: Hodges contributed the same number. Hodges can sound too smooth on stomping tunes ("You Need To Rock"), but he really is damn near peerless on ballads, and the Harold Arlen standard "Let's Fall In Love" is a fine example. But he doesn't try to shoulder the whole burden: plenty of solo space is reserved for Ben Webster on tenor, Sweets Edison on trumpet, and an unusually violent Ellington ("Stompy Jones"). And in keeping with the Duke's penchant for multi-instrumentalists, Les Spann is featured on guitar and flute, and his solos on each are fluid if not overly imaginative. Very often the band is playing swing with the horns in tight unison ("Going Up"), proving that you can take the small combo out of the big band, but you can't make a satin doll out of a sow's ear: the Ellingtonian delicacy of shading is largely absent. (DBW)

Piano In The Background (1960)
There must be some story behind this recording, but I don't know what it is: ten tunes, mostly very well known ("'A' Train," "It Don't Mean A Thing" - both with low-key piano intros), cut in a Hollywood studio. The focus is on uptempo ensemble playing rather than solos, but the arrangements aren't particularly novel ("Perdido"), and the rarely heard material ("Main Stem") isn't particularly good. So although it's well recorded and an unfailingly pleasant listen ("I'm Beginning To See The Light"), I can't particularly recommend it. (DBW)

The Nutcracker Suite (1960)
I was afraid this was a quick cash-in at the expense of would-be-hip classical fans, but actually it's an organic, coherent and fun adaptation of Tchaikovsky to big-band format. "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy" becomes the sly, measured "Sugar Rum Cherry"; "Waltz Of The Flowers" becomes "Danse Of The Floreadores." "The March Of The Toy Soldiers" gets the most thorough transformation as the main melody is cut up, moved into different registers, and occasionally shows up only in the background. But perhaps the clearest indication of the success of Ellington's undertaking is that you're almost never aware you're listening to an updated classical piece: it just sounds like jazz, and great jazz to boot ("Chinoiserie," spotlighting Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves). I have this on a tape called Three Suites together with Peer Gynt/Suite Thursday. (DBW)

Peer Gynt/Suite Thursday (1961)
On side one, the Duke tries to do for Edward Grieg what he'd done for Tchaikovsky, but it's not nearly as successful: the pieces sound stodgy ("Solveig's Song") and the jazz camouflage is ill-fitting ("Anitra's Dance"). Part of the problem may be that I never liked Peer Gynt in the first place: the trite, repetitive "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" is the most recognizable melody. Side two, "Suite Thursday," is a set of four pieces (supposedly connected to John Steinbeck somehow) based on a descending minor sixth, a rarely heard interval that's nevertheless so overused here you'll soon be sick of it: the themes of "Zweet Zurzday" and "Lay-By" are nearly identical. There's some fine playing on "Zweet," but there's just not enough for the band to work with. (DBW)

First Time! The Count Meets The Duke (1961)
Yep, the Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra, both playing the same tunes at the same time (Duke in the right channel, Count in the left). But rather than a battle of the bands with the musicians trying to cut each other, the session is designed for each band to show its strengths while complementing the other. Ellington does dominate a bit: his players get most of the solos, and most of the new compositions are either his ("Battle Royal") or Strayhorn's ("BDB") - they're serviceable if not exceptional. Strayhorn even takes over for Basie on piano during his "Take The 'A' Train." But Basie and company do get some fine playing in, particularly Thad Jones on trumpet, and the bands do bust out his standard "Jumpin' At The Woodside." The CD reissue includes a number of alternate takes and outs, but alas, I don't have it. (DBW)

Money Jungle (1962)
An all-star trio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, but it's disappointing: other than "Solitude" and "Caravan," the tunes are mostly undistinguished blues ("Very Special" - I'm afraid not). Mingus and Roach stay out of the spotlight, Ellington's forced to provide all the excitement, and though his playing is always pleasant and sometimes a blast ("Wig Wise"), it's often overly sedate. So despite Mingus's very busy walking lines, and Roach's accents ("A Little Max Parfait"), it often sounds like dinner music ("Rem Blues"). The gorgeous, hushed "Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)" is the one significant exception. (DBW)

Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins: 1962)
Ellington had been talking about recording with Hawk - the dominant name in tenor sax before Lester Young - for years, and when the opportunity came he was ready for it. There's more new material than usual: the slow blues "Ray Charles' Place"; the Caribbean-styled "Limbo Jazz"; and a song especially written for Hawkins's rich tone and discursive, speechlike phrasing: "Self Portrait (Of The Bean)." The only frequently recorded tunes to make their appearance are "Mood Indigo" (with a curious uptempo blues section) and the bonus track, "Solitude," where dueling melancholy solos by Nance on violin and Hawkins that make it the most affecting version of the song I've heard. The band is a subsection of Ellington's usual crew: Nance, Brown, Hodges and Carney plus rhythm section. The same year, Ellington cut a record with another master tenor, John Coltrane, aptly titled Duke Ellington And John Coltrane. (DBW)

Such Sweet Thunder (1963)
Live recordings cut during three different tours of Sweden: "Perdido" is from 1963, two tunes are from 1959 (title track), and the bulk of the album is from 1958. The sound quality isn't great, which particularly impacts quiet numbers like Strayhorn's "Passion Flower." The two extended pieces are a lackluster greatest hits medley and "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue," with Gonsalves honking R&B clichés endlessly, and the other tunes aren't hard to find elsewhere ("Rockin' In Rhythm") so while this isn't a bad collection by any means it's hard to recommend it highly. (DBW)

In The Uncommon Market (1963)
Uncommon indeed: this mix of early 60s recordings in Europe contains studio tracks by an Ellington trio (a wonderful, jaunty "Kinda Dukish"; two versions of the elegantly minimal "The Shepherd"), and live performances of rarely heard tunes (the uptempo "E.S.P.") and standards (a lovely Paul Gonsalves reading of "In A Sentimental Mood"). "Guitar Amour" is probably the oddest piece, a slow number with Spanish percussion (in clavé, yet) backing Nance's gypsy fiddling. The rhythmically tricky "Silk Lace," which sets rousing percussion against a delicate, sweeping clarinet, is also a highlight. There's plenty of more substantive Ellingtonia, but this is good fun for casual listeners and devotees alike. (DBW)

The Great Paris Concert (1963)
A two-CD set, with the band in great form drawing on material from all eras. There are full performances of "Suite Thursday" - much livelier than the studio take, and improved by an extended Nance violin solo on "Lay-By" - and "Tone Parallel To Harlem," in addition to the usual parade of hits ("Rockin' In Rhythm," a rearranged "Perdido"), new material ("Theme From The Asphalt Jungle") and some offbeat oldies ("Rose Of The Rio Grande"). Cootie Williams had just rejoined the band after a twenty-year absence, so "Concerto For Cootie" is back, paired with the new "Tootie For Cootie," and the set ends with "Echoes Of Harlem." Hodges is as tender as ever on his features "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" and "The Star-Crossed Lovers." Strayhorn's bombastic "The Eighth Veil" is one of the stranger tunes here; Gonsalves's feature "Cop-Out," on the other hand, sounds like any big band you'd hear on a 50s film soundtrack. Oh, and if you want to study the distinct approaches of the various soloists, this is a great place to start, because Duke calls out the name of the featured player at the end of each tune (even each solo on the everybody-blows-a-chorus "Jam With Sam"). (DBW)

The Great London Concerts (rec. 1963-1964)
Drawn from two performances, January 1963 and February 1964; the set list is mostly greatest hits ("Mood Indigo," "Caravan," with a bizarre percussive piano solo), plus two long pieces ("Tone Parallel To Harlem" and "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue") and a couple of rarely performed tunes from then-unreleased suites: "Isfahan" from Far East Suite; the piano solo "The Single Petal Of A Rose" from the Queen's Suite. The version of "Harlem" is the best I've heard yet: each segment is performed with vigor, and it all flows together rather than sounding like a patchwork. There are some other unusual touches: "Take The 'A' Train" is performed as a showcase for Ernie Shepard, who simultaneously plays a bass solo and scat sings; trumpeter Cat Anderson rolls out his insanely high notes on the fast-paced Cootie Williams tune "The Opener." Milt Grayson's arch vocal on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is the one low point. (DBW)

Far East Suite (1966)
Eight new tunes written by Ellington and Strayhorn, plus Duke's extended "Ad Lib On Nippon." The pieces run the gamut from Strayhorn classicism ("Bluebird Of Paradise," a theme and variations based on a simple bird-like phrase) to full band workouts like "A Tourist Point Of View." "Mount Harissa" is a heavy R&B-influenced groove driven by Rufus Jones's drumming and Gonsalves's tenor, looking ahead to 1968's Latin American Suite. My CD edition also comes with four alternate takes. Though the album's generally hailed as a late-period classic, overall I find the album a bit antiseptic and unengaging, both slow ("Isfahan") and fast tunes ("Amad"). (DBW)

...And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967)
Billy Strayhorn died from cancer on May 31, 1967, and Ellington soon recorded this set of his compositions; overpraised by critics eager to belatedly recognize Strays and to recognize Duke for recognizing him. The material ranges from early ("Rain Check") to late ("Blood Count," "Charpoy"), and focuses on infrequently recorded work, with no hits and no suite excerpts. Partly as a result, there's more uptempo swing ("Rock Skippin' At The Blue Note") than mood pieces, and the overall tone is weirdly chipper for an in memoriam tribute. There is some great stuff, though: the melancholy reading of "After All" featuring a wonderful Hodges solo; a swinging full band version of "The Intimacy Of The Blues." (DBW)

Yale Concert (1968)
Like it says. The tunes are nearly all obscure - "Warm Valley" and a slow version of "Take The 'A' Train" are the only standards - but they're magnificent: the mini-suite "The Little Purple Flower" comes in two parts - one soft and pensive, the other upbeat and joyful - and both are brilliant. "Swamp Goo" and Strayhorn's "Put-Tin" are fast dance numbers with deftly humorous arrangements. An unaccompanied Gonsalves tenor solo on "Up-Jump" - worlds away from his "Diminuendo" honkfest - shows how Ellington could nod to recent innovations (in this case Eric Dolphy's) without compromising his overall approach. There's even a swinging piano trio version of Yale's fight song "Boola Boola," with Ellington at his most playful. "A Chromatic Love Affair" is perhaps the least of the new material, an arch ballad that wears its complexity on its sleeve. Crisp, well recorded performances of regrettably neglected compositions - you won't regret picking this up. (DBW)

70th Birthday Concert (1969)
A 2-LP live recording in England, about six months after Duke's seventieth birthday. New material: mixed, with one gorgeous, moody composition otherwise unreleased ("4:30 Blues"), one distressingly weak lite jazz tune ("Black Swan," roughly like Herb Alpert covering "Groovin'") and two pieces in between ("B.P.," "Laying On Mellow"). Extended works: none. Closing medley: unusually long at sixteen minutes, and relatively unenthralling except for some fine choruses from Ellington. Soloists: Hodges and Williams are rather subdued in their features, so Cat Anderson has sole claim to the spotlight with his incredibly high trumpet runs on his own composition "El Gato." Other distingushing features: organist Wild Bill Davis - whose playing on "Satin Doll" is strikingly close to Jimmy Smith's version - and Norris Turney on flute add some unusual tonal character. (DBW)

The Pianist (rec. 1966, 1970, rel. 1974)
Drawn from two trio sessions: a 1966 date with John Lamb (bass) and Sam Woodyard (drums), and a 1970 date with bassist Paul Kondziela and drummer Rufus Jones. All the tunes are Ellington's, and with the exception of "The Shepherd," none were ever recorded at any other session. But they're not tossoff blues lines like most of Money Jungle, they're complete, solid pieces (the sprightly "Don Juan," the reflective "Slow Blues"). Ellington's technique on piano is nothing to marvel at, but his touch is strikingly pure, whether he's being playful ("Tap Dancer's Blues") or pensive ("Never Stop Remembering Bill"). A great opportunity to hear Duke without the big band bombast - even the rhythm section stays well to the back - or distractingly familiar hits. (DBW)

Latin American Suite (rec. 1968, 1970)
Inspired by a tour of Latin America; I believe this was the first major work by Ellington after Strayhorn's death. Sometimes considered half-baked - and in truth the compositions aren't especially complex - but I love it: the band swings hard, reflecting the dance music Ellington heard on tour but without pastiche or "World Beat" bastardization ("Oclupaca"). The orchestrations have richness and humor ("Eque"), Rufus Jones adds powerhouse drumming without showboating, and for once the piano player gets most of the solos, ranging from playful ("Tina," the only track cut in 1970) to driving ("Chico Cuadrino"). "Brasilliance" features a long tenor solo in Coltrane's harsh, modal idiom. (DBW)

The Intimacy Of The Blues (1970)
In contrast with the multiplicity of approaches on Blues In Orbit, here Duke Ellington playing the blues sounds pretty much like anyone else playing the blues ("Kentucky Ave, A.C."). Plus, three of the 1970 selections are overwhelmed by Wild Bill Davis's organ, and this time he doesn't even have much to say ("Noon Morning"). On the other hand, the rhythm section is sharp, none of the tunes are terrible and some are exquisite: "Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Baby" is a blast, with Brown wailing on trombone, and the sweet, lyrical "Soul Country" sounds like it should be a standard. (DBW)

New Orleans Suite (1970)
Pleasant if slight; the set effectively conveys the mood and sound of Dixieland but many of the tunes are sketchy ("Blues For New Orleans"). As with 70th Birthday Concert, Tunney on flute ("Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies") and Davis on organ dominate most sections though Carney, Anderson, Procope, Gonsalves and Williams were all on hand (Hodges died during the sessions - his final recordings are here). Gonsalves does get to do his thing on the lovely "Thanks For The Beautiful Land On The Delta," also highlighted by Rufus Jones's timekeeping. There are four portraits, and the gently rolling "Portrait Of Mahalia Jackson" is the standout: the portraits of Louis Armstrong (featuring Williams), Wellman Braud and Sidney Bechet seem more like caricatures than compositions. Julian Priester is one of four trombones, but I can't hear whether he's featured. (DBW)

The Ellington Suites (rec. 1959-1972)
Contains three complete suites: "The Queen's Suite" composed with Strayhorn for Queen Elizabeth; "The Goutelas Suite" from 1971; and "The UWIS Suite" composed to commemorate an Ellington Festival at the University of Wisconsin in 1972. The "Queen's Suite," never released during Ellington's lifetime, is a major work: Strayhorn's "Northern Lights" is a dramatic piece influenced by early 20th Century classical music. "Sunset And The Mocking Bird" is a tender Hodges feature with a lush, luscious arrangement, while the spare "The Single Petal Of A Rose" - Ellington on piano accompanied only by bowed bass - is equally gorgeous. "Lightning Bugs And Frogs," while not as lighthearted as the title suggests, is full of amusing melodic leaps and is played with remarkable control by the orchestra. However, the second suite, "Goutelas" is mostly trivial minute-long doodles, with one brilliant track: "Something," which uses a slow searching theme to explore a variety of instrumental textures. The "Uwis Suite" is in-between: the opening "Uwis" is stately and complex, the closing "Loci Madi" is a fun romp, and "Klop" is a frantic jumble that's apparently supposed to be a polka. Overall, a valuable and unique - though flawed - collection. (DBW)

Eastbourne Performance (rec. 1973)
I believe this was Ellington's final recording, live in England. The set list ranges from 1927's "Creole Love Call" to 1973's "The Piano Player," with a number of non-Ellington tunes: Gershwin's "I Can't Get Started," Spencer Williams's "Basin Street Blues" (sung and performed by trumpeter Money Johnson in the style of Louis Armstrong). Most of the orchestra's veterans were gone except for Mercer Ellington, Procope, Carney and Ashby; new faces include trumpeter Johnny Coles (an uptempo "How High The Moon"), tenor sax Percy Marion and vocalist Anita Moore ("New York, New York" - a new if unexceptional Ellington song, not the Sinatra vehicle or the Last Poets composition). The closing piano feature "Meditation" is beautiful, and the band is solid, but there's not much magic here. (DBW)

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