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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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DUKE ELLINGTON

Original Album Series

Rhino 8122 79834 5

 

 


Will Big Bands Ever Come Back?
1. Tuxedo Junction
2. Smoke Rings
3. Artistry in Rhythm
4. The Waltz You Saved for Me
5. Woodchopper's Ball
6. Sentimental Journey
7. When It's Sleepy Time Down South
8. One O'clock Jump
9. Goodbye
10. Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
11. Rhapsody in Blue
12. Don't Get Around Much Anymore

Duke Ellington's Jazz Violin Session
1. Take The "A" Train
2. In a Sentimental Mood
3. Don't Get Around Much Anymore
4. Day Dream
5. Cotton Tail
6. Pretty Little One
7. Tricky's Licks
8. Blues in C
9. String Along with Strings
10. Limbo Jazz
11. The Feeling of Jazz

Duke Ellington Plays With The Original Score From Walt Disney's Mary Poppins
1. A Spoonful of Sugar
2. Chim Chim Cheree
3. Feed the Birds
4. Let's Go Fly a Kite
5. Stay Awake
6. I Love to Laugh
7. Jolly Holiday
8. Sister Suffragette
9. The Perfect Nanny
10. Step in Time
11. The Life I Lead
12. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Ellington '65
1. Hello Dolly!
2. Call Me Irresponsible
3. Fly Me to the Moon
4. So Little Time
5. Danke Schoen
6. More
7. The Second Time Around
8. Never on Sunday
9. I Left My Heart in San Francisco
10. Blowin' in the Wind
11. Stranger on the Shore

Ellington '66
1. Red Roses for a Blue Lady
2. Charade
3. People
4. All My Lovin'
5. A Beautiful Friendship
6. I Want to Hold Your Hand
7. Days of Wine and Roses
8. I Can't Stop Loving You
9. The Good Life
10. Satin Doll
11. Moon River
12. Ellington '66

 

The 1960s were a strange time for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The euphoria aroused by the band's memorable performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival was starting to die away, and the arrival of rock'n' roll and the Beatles had made life even more precarious for jazz big bands. Yet Ellington continued to make some notable albums, such as Afro-Bossa, The Far East Suite and collaborations with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins. The band had regained several of its star performers, including Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Cootie Williams.

However, after the Duke signed up with Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records label in 1962, he seemed to seek popularity by recording other people's hits instead of his own material. Peter Gammond's biography of Ellington says: "Ellington admirers...put aside new LPs of the period ...with a feeling of disappointment". The five albums in this special-price collection provide a cross-section of Duke's work from 1962 to 1966 - and not always his best work.

The first reissued LP is Will Big Bands Ever Come Back? - a familiar question at the time this was recorded (1962-63). In a way Ellington himself gave a positive answer to this question, because his band had never gone away. But the swing era was long gone and seemed unlikely to return - at least with the huge level of popularity it once enjoyed. This LP harked back to a previous album - Ellington '55 - which included tunes made famous by other bands, such as In the Mood and Flying Home. It certainly seems strange for the Ellington band to tackle such pieces as Rhapsody in Blue or Fred Waring's Sleep, Sleep, Sleep.

However, Smoke Rings is heightened by Johnny Hodges's unique alto sax, and Stan Kenton's Artistry in Rhythm is salted with Ray Nance's violin: at first pizzicato and then bowed (with gypsy rapture). Even when playing such apparently run-of-the-mill material, Ellington could rely on his hand-picked musicians to add individuality. And Duke's arrangements would often add a new dimension to well-worn tunes - as in the unusual voicings he applies to Sentimental Journey. The famous opening glissando to Rhapsody in Blue becomes a stuttering tenor sax. And handing the theme statement of Goodbye to Johnny Hodges was a master stroke, as his saxophone could express poignancy so perfectly.

The second reissued LP (recorded in Paris in February 1963) is probably my favourite among these five discs, as it uses a small group to showcase three contrasting violinists: Stephane Grappelli (the doyen of jazz violinists), Ellingtonian Ray Nance, and Denmark's Svend Asmussen. Take the "A" Train includes all three, but Grappelli's sophisticated violin is featured on In a Sentimental Mood. Svend Asmussen's more staccato style is spotlighted in Don't Get Around Much Anymore, and Ray Nance's harder-edged violin solos on Day Dream - although Ray is at his most poetic here.

The almost unreadable liner notes are no help in identifying the soloists on the remaining tracks, though listeners can probably sort them out. Because the print is so tiny (as was the case with the previously-reviewed Ray Charles compilation in the same series), I have not listed the personnel. Some tracks simply have Duke leading a rhythm section, but Billy Strayhorn joins in for a couple of numbers, and the tracks on side two add altoist Russell Procope, tenorist Paul Gonsalves and trombonist Buster Cooper. At any rate, the small group sizes allow plenty of space for the violinists, and the musicians sound at ease with the repertoire, which consists entirely of compositions by Ellington and/or Strayhorn.

If any of these popularising albums could be accused of "dumbing down", it would be the Mary Poppins one, recorded in September 1964. Of course, there had previously been many jazz interpretations of music from films and stage shows, starting with Shelly Manne's 1956 My Fair Lady with André Previn and Leroy Vinnegar, but the Sherman brothers' songs for Mary Poppins hardly seem a suitable case for jazz improvisation. Only about half of the songs from the musical became really well-known and their general mood of childish naivety seems inappropriate for a jazz orchestra.

Nevertheless, the opening Spoonful of Sugar demonstrates Ellington's ability to transform even the most banal material into something special, with Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney soloing over a shuffle beat. Jolly Holiday is enlivened by a growling plunger-muted trumpet solo from Cootie Williams, although the usually reliable Lawrence Brown sounds shaky in his solo, which (like several tracks in this collection) is faded out towards the end: an unusual thing to happen to such a prestigious orchestra. The Perfect Nanny and Step in Time seem inconsequential, but Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is just right for Paul Gonsalves' flyaway tenor.

The last two discs in this collection give us the unlikely sound of Duke Ellington interpreting the popular songs of the day. Ellington '65 (actually recorded in April 1964) consists of the band playing such tunes as Hello Dolly! and Blowin' in the Wind. Once again, Duke's arrangements and his soloists save this album from being over-commercialised.

Lawrence Brown's trombone is telling in Call Me Irresponsible, and Cootie Williams makes a nice job of Fly Me to the Moon, against a background of typically off-the-wall Ellington harmonies. Russell Procope brings a juicily tremulous clarinet tone to More and Johnny Hodges flies high in The Second Time Around. Harry Carney's earthy baritone sax states the melody of Stranger on the Shore. Major Holley's bass holds things together securely, and Sam Woodyard adds helpful comments on the drums. Yet throughout this disc and the next, there is a feeling of the orchestra treading water - and perhaps looking too intently at the written music to be very inventive.

Ellington '66 is subtitled "The very great Duke Ellington Orchestra plays the very great hits". These include two Beatles tunes but also two of the Duke's compositions: the venerable Satin Doll and the entirely new title-track. But did you ever imagine that Ellington would perform Charade or Moon River? Not that these or the other items are bad performances; they just lack some of the sparkle that one has come to expect from the Duke. Still, there are those touches that made Ellington unique: like the adventurous harmonies behind Hodges in People. Even I Want to Hold Your Hand swings like mad, and All My Loving is transformed with the help of a Latin-American rhythm similar to those on Afro-Bossa.

I can't recommend this set unreservedly, although Ellington fans will still want to snap it up at its bargain price.

Tony Augarde



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