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Austin Chronicle Digital Duke: Best of the Rest

By Harvey Pekar

MAY 3, 1999:  While Victor has the best Ellington stash, Duke recorded tons of great stuff for other labels. Next to Victor, Columbia owns the richest Ellington recordings, including some that they acquired from other labels. The Okeh Ellington (1927-30) is one of the most important Ellington collections out there, capturing the orchestra at one of its early peaks with two outstanding CDs. Also of major interest on Columbia are two other 2-CD sets: Duke Ellington Small Groups, volumes one and two, which contain small combo efforts by Duke sidemen Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Johnny Hodges. These are, without a doubt, among the greatest swing era small group performances.

Columbia also owns superb Ellington recordings from the Fifties. At that time Duke's band included Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Willie Cook, and Cat Anderson in the trumpet section; trombonists Britt Woodman and Quentin Jackson; and reed players Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves. Some of this Ellington gold has been available for years, but Columbia Legacy's new reissuing of Ellington's soundtrack from Anatomy of a Murder, a later version of Black, Brown and Beige with Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, the Shakespearian suite Such Sweet Thunder, and the forthcoming 2-CD reconfiguration of Ellington at Newport, 1956, are all top notch, remastered well and containing loads of extra tracks.

Columbia is especially rich in 1934-40 stuff, but at this time does not plan to issue it in a comprehensive manner. Some can be found on Reminiscing in Tempo, a single CD containing unusual material, including soundtrack performances. They also plan to release The Duke, a 3-CD set culled from all of their Ellington holdings. That's due in July. Comparable in importance to Columbia's The Okeh Ellington is Early Ellington, a 3-CD set on Decca with 1926-33 selections. It contains alternate takes.

Those interested in more than just a sampling of Ellington's 1934-40 period released by Columbia can round up those years on the Classics label. They're arranged chronologically and are pretty complete, although alternate takes and live stuff aren't included. Ellington's 1943, '44, '46, and '47 Carnegie Hall concerts are on four 2-CD Prestige recordings.

Ellington wrote a number of suites, longer compositions composed of loosely related sections, and in the bandleader's case, inspired by cultures or locations, such as The Far East Suite. These suites have gotten mixed critical reaction, and while many are loaded with powerful, lovely passages, Ellington doesn't always develop his ideas well or sustain the momentum developed. In some cases, his suites, though excellent, contain material so unrelated that they aren't really suites -- just a bunch of fine pieces you'd find on a "normal" album by Duke. This is okay by me, but the uninitiated listener might want to know that some Ellington suites might not be considered "suites" by the classical definition.

In any event, Ellington wrote a multitude of suites after Black, Brown and Beige (1944-'46), some of them recorded. Perfume Suite was cut in '44 at a Carnegie Hall Concert (Prestige), as was the Liberian Suite in '47 (Prestige), and the Harlem Suite in 1951 (Columbia). Many of the later suites have been reissued on Pablo: The Ellington Suites, Latin American Suite, and the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. Again, in general, longer works were not Ellington's strong suit, but then most composers would be thrilled to write as well as Duke, even when he wasn't in top form. His New Orleans Suite (Atlantic) and Togo Brava Suite (Blue Note) are well-realized works.

Between his stints with Capitol and Columbia -- Blue Note will be releasing the entire Capitol oeuvre later this year (previously available on Mosaic) -- Ellington cut a couple of very nice albums for Bethlehem: Historically Speaking and Duke Ellington Presents. These 1956 recordings have never received the attention they deserved.

In his later years, Ellington appeared in small groups with some great jazzmen, some his contemporaries, some younger. He cut an album with the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on Impulse and two with Louis Armstrong, currently available on Blue Note. Also available on Blue Note is Money Jungle, an outstanding 1962 trio session featuring Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Ellington. Look, too, for a pairing with John Coltrane on Impulse. A universally appealing multi-volume album featuring Ella Fitzgerald singing the Ellington song book (Verve) contains a number of gems written especially for the project. It's terrific stuff.

A huge number of live Ellington albums have been issued. Many were cut by private individuals rather than record companies. Perhaps the greatest is Ellington's legendary Fargo, North Dakota concert of 1940, by his greatest band, (available on the Stash label). Music Master's Ellington: the Great Chicago Concerts (1946) is well worth having. Django Reinhardt makes a guest appearance on it. Among Ellington's memorable concert appearances in later years are The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic, 1971), Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert (Blue Note), Live at the Blue Note (Roulette), and Live at the Whitney (Impulse), a trio album with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Rufus Jones.

Space won't allow citations of more albums, but if you get anything by Duke Ellington, you can't go wrong. -- H.P.

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