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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

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Three Mid-Fifties Classic 11 Tracks from April 1953

Avid AMSC 937





Tracks 1-12: ‘Historically Speaking – The Duke’

1. East St. Louis Toodle-oo
2. Creole Love Call
3. Stompy Jones
4. The Jeep Is Jumpin’
5. Jack The Bear
6. In A Mellotone
7. Ko-Ko
8. Midriff
9. Stomp, Look And Listen
10. Unbooted Character
11. Lonesome Lullaby
12. Upper Manhattan Medical Group
Tracks 13-22: ‘Duke Ellington Presents…’

13. Summertime
14. Laura
15. I Can’t Get Started
16. My Funny Valentine
17. Everything But You
18. Frustration
19. Cotton Tail
20. Day Dream
21. Deep Purple
22. Blues

1. Indian Summer
Tracks 2-8: ‘Ellington ‘55’

2. Rockin’ In Rhythm
3. Black And Tan Fantasy
4. Stompin’ At The Savoy
5. In The Mood
6. One O’Clock Jump
7. Honeysuckle Rose
8. Happy Go Lucky Local
9. Flying Home
Tracks 10-20: from April 1953 sessions

10. Warm Valley
11. Liza
12. Satin Doll
13. Three Little Words
14. Cocktails For Two
15. Star Dust
16. Flamingo
17. My Old Flame
18. Boo-Dah
19. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

20. Stormy Weather

I had a good education. I was brought up listening to my father's collection of jazz on 78-rpm discs, including the likes of Benny Goodman, George Shearing and, naturally, Duke Ellington. Ellington's livelier works appealed to me greatly - such as Cotton Tail with its unforgettable Ben Webster solo and Sonny Greer driving the rhythm along like an express train. But I was exposed to a later version of the Ellington band when I accompanied a school friend into a record shop where we listened to an LP called Ellington '55. My friend bought it and I was knocked out by its dynamism.

The 1950s were not a good time for Duke Ellington. Three key musicians - Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer - left the band early in 1951, although Hodges returned in 1955 and Brown in 1960. And the early fifties was a difficult period for big bands, which tended to be replaced by small groups. Ellington kept his orchestra together but there was a sense among some critics that he was treading water. Much of the music on this double CD consists of refashioned versions of old Ellington compositions, jazz standards, or interpretations of other big bands' successes.

So the first album in this collection, Historically Speaking - The Duke (from February 1956) presents new arrangements of a dozen Ellington favourites - in chronological order from East St Louis Toodle-Oo (1926) to Upper Manhattan Medical Group (1954). The latter is credited as an Ellington composition on the sleeve, but it was written by Billy Strayhorn. Note the precision of the saxes on Midriff and the cohesion of the whole ensemble in Stomp, Look and Listen.

Even though these first twelve tracks tread old ground, they still sound fresh. For instance, Johnny Hodges adds some beautiful obbligato at the end of Creole Love Call, while Jack the Bear (originally a feature for bassist Jimmy Blanton) is refreshed with some clear clarinet from Jimmy Hamilton and jaunty baritone sax from Harry Carney. However, the version of Ko-Ko can't match the classic original, especially as it is here speeded up to an uncomfortably fast tempo which loses some of the original's mystery.

The album Duke Ellington Presents was recorded at the same February 1956 session that produced Historically Speaking. It turns the spotlight on the individual musicians in a mixture of jazz standards and Ellington originals. Paul Gonsalves solos tenderly on Laura; Ray Nance illustrates two of his many talents by singing and playing violin in I Can't Get Started; and Johnny Hodges' alto is as moving as ever in Day Dream.

Ellington '55 is a strange but captivating mixture. Besides three Ellington originals, there are tributes to several other big bands. One O'Clock Jump pays homage to Count Basie by imitating the Basie arrangement, while Stompin' at the Savoy recognises both Chick Webb and Benny Goodman's versions of the tune. Strangest of all is In the Mood - probably a nod to Glenn Miller but not a tune one would naturally associate with the Duke. Ellington's piano introduction is typical Duke but, when the orchestra comes in, it sounds like a conventional big band. Thankfully solos from Clark Terry, Jimmy Hamilton and (probably) Russell Procope retrieve the band's reputation for originality. Happy Go Lucky Local reflects Ellington's love for locomotives (and wasn't it later stolen to make Night Train?).

When the Ellington '55 album was re-released as a CD in 1999, it contained two bonus tracks - Body and Soul and It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). Sadly these are omitted from this reissue: instead we get eleven tracks from April 1953. These include the first-ever recording of Satin Doll (happily without those incomprehensibly hip lyrics); some fine piano from Duke Ellington in Flamingo; and a neat solo by Clark Terry on Boo-Dah.

Although some tracks here suggest that Ellington was having a struggle to keep his band together, and sometimes resorted to making recordings that might have "commercial" appeal, his orchestra was still unique. Thankfully the band's performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival revived Duke's fortunes, rescuing him from the early fifties' doldrums. And, because this double CD comes at Avid's usual startlingly generous price, it is well worth buying.

Tony Augarde






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