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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Duke Ellington, “The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958”

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What made Ellington a Duke? Though born in the final year of the 19th century, few figures in 20th century music were as influential as composer, pianist and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. By the time of his first ever long-playing album, 1951’s Masterpieces by Ellington, he was already American royalty, well-established via films, Broadway musicals and the enduring compositions he gifted to the Great American Songbook. Masterpieces also kicks off the nine-disc journey through Legacy Recordings’ The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 (88697 93888 2). As the title indicates, this box set only covers a part of Ellington’s Columbia career, excluding live discs and his work into the 1960s. But it makes available in one fell swoop some of the most important music of Ellington’s long career, and restores to the catalogue two albums previously unavailable on CD in the U.S.: 1956’s A Drum is a Woman and 1958’s At the Bal Masque.

The nine albums in the box are representative of Ellington’s work during this fertile period. These nine albums serve as bookends to Ellington’s renowned 1956 Newport Jazz Festival appearance which reaffirmed his place in the pantheon and landed him on the cover of Time. The big band era in which he once flourished might have passed, but the time for Duke Ellington’s orchestra certainly did not. He took advantage of the long-playing LP format to revisit past classics in epic style on albums such as Masterpieces and 1952’s Ellington Uptown, teamed with vocalists Rosemary Clooney and Mahalia Jackson for two incredibly different sets, and crafted ambitious suites with A Drum is a Woman and Such Sweet Thunder. He even intermingled his own well-known compositions with those of his others on Ellington Indigos, At the Bal Masque and The Cosmic Scene, which despite its space age title, incorporated already-vintage songs by Al Jolson, W.C. Handy, and Johnnys Burke and Mercer. All of the albums in the new box set are essential listening for fans of big band, “pure” jazz and popular vocals, too. Each LP, too, has bonus tracks carried over from previous Legacy reissues, excepting the new-to-U.S. CD Bal Masque and Drum.

We explore the contents of the box set further after the jump! You know what to do…

There’s tremendous majesty and grandeur in Ellington’s smoky, sultry compositions. Chestnuts like “Mood Indigo” (1931), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933) and “Solitude” (1934) all found full blossom in the extended treatments on Masterpieces, with those first two titles featuring husky vocals from Yvonne Lanauze. Naturally, there’s room for all of Ellington’s talented musicians to breathe, and plenty of tasty piano from the Duke himself as well as his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Though Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is absent from the albums in this set, his other most famous composition, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” appears on The Cosmic Scene and Ellington Uptown. That album revisited the hot, steamy and seductive musical environment of Harlem in new concert-style arrangements including “’A’ Train” with a multi-part arrangement and the vocals of Betty Roche. “Mood Indigo” can be savored in three unique renditions on the box set, from Masterpieces, Blue Rose with Rosemary Clooney, and (of course) Ellington Indigos. Ellington’s band was in great transition during this early Columbia period, with drummer Sonny Greer, alto saxophone legend Johnny Hodges and trombonist Lawrence Brown all leaving the band after Masterpieces, recorded late in 1950. Their absence, though, may have compelled Ellington to define his sound for contemporary audiences, a feat he accomplished with integrity and ingenuity on subsequent albums and in live performances. (Hodge, and Brown, however, would return to the fold. Hodges’ work is keenly felt on numerous discs in this box.)

Ellington and Strayhorn’s band arrangements for Blue Rose are some of the most sumptuous in the box set, tailor-made for the sound of Columbia vocalist and one-time big band singer Rosemary Clooney. The star famously clashed with her producer Mitch Miller over novelty hits like “Come On-a My House” (No. 1 in 1951) and “Mambo Italiano” (No. 10, 1954). However beloved these songs were and are, Clooney viewed herself as a jazz singer, and her instincts were proven solid with 1956’s Blue Rose. It also marked the return of Ellington to Columbia after roughly four years. Clooney excels on this program of songs all written or co-written by Ellington or Strayhorn, imbuing both ballads and swingers with class and effortless grace that matched Ellington’s own. The achievement is all the more remarkable considering that Clooney’s vocals were recorded apart and on the other side of the country from the band tracks! Clooney was in good company; the only other vocalists with whom Ellington recorded full-length sets were Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

The bandleader’s diversity and adaptability is further evident on 1959’s Black, Brown and Beige. The three-part suite was originally performed in 1943, but was adapted for record in six parts and featured gospel great Mahalia Jackson in its reworked form. Though it was tepidly received upon its initial presentation, the piece concerning itself with “the most important element in a Negro’s life – color” today is a striking exercise in marrying a jazz sensibility and deep spirituality to a concert composition; Jackson concludes with a stirring vocal rendition of Ellington’s setting (said to be improvised in the studio) of the 23rd Psalm. What had underwhelmed in 1943 sounded positively electrifying in 1959 in the midst of the civil rights movement.

Equally grand in ambition are A Drum is a Woman (1956) and Such Sweet Thunder (1957). The former began life as a television broadcast on the U.S. Steel Hour, and the Columbia recording can be considered an original cast recording for the program. The “musical fantasy” followed Carribee Joe and his drum which becomes a woman known as Madam Zajj. As the liner notes explain (reproduced on the rear artwork of the paper sleeve that houses the disc), “Joe, the primitive, wanted to remain with the jungle. Zajj, the sensuous, gaudy, sophisticated siren that is jazz, wanted to travel.” Co-writers and arrangers Ellington and Strayhorn used this story to explore the ethnic roots of jazz from Africa to Barbados and New Orleans. Vocals were supplied by Margaret Tynes, Joya Sherrill and Ozzie Bailey while Ellington’s orchestra members, as usual, had ample moments to shine via solos. Like most orchestrations by Ellington and Strayhorn, the album opens with the inviting sound of Duke’s piano, but the musical style soon stretches into unknown territory including the calypso of “What Else Can You Do with a Drum,” sung by Bailey. “Hey, Buddy Bolden” is a smoldering production number led by Sherrill on vocals and Clark Terry and Ray Nance on trumpets. “You Better Know It” is a finger-snapper also sung by Bailey. “Ballet of the Flying Saucers” is a standout among the purely musical moments, with a drum solo from Sam Woodyard, although it’s part of a longer track also containing narration. In this “jazz opera,” there’s also a significant amount of narration (much of it in verse) to move the story along, resonantly spoken by Ellington. It may be one of the most unusual items in Ellington’s catalogue, but its comparative rarity makes it all the more fascinating to rediscover. (A European reissue of A Drum is a Woman added the bonus track “Pomegranate” which is not reprised here.)

Such Sweet Thunder could be the crown jewel of the box set. Shakespeare fan Ellington set out to musicalize the Bard’s immortal characters, though not in traditional musical theatre form but via instrumental concert compositions. The twelve-part suite draws on works including Othello, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet for a rich, transporting orchestral journey entirely composed and orchestrated by Ellington and Strayhorn. (Some earlier compositions were, however, incorporated and reworked for the suite.) The 22-track edition created by Legacy in 1999 has been utilized here; it was notable not only for the overly generous selection of bonus tracks, but for presenting Such Sweet Thunder in stereo for the first time. Equal parts sweet and thunderous, the album is one of the Duke’s masterworks. (Footnote: Ellington would likely have been pleased with the 1997 Broadway musical Play On! The short-lived productionreset Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Harlem with an all-Duke score.)

At the Bal Masque is the other title previously unavailable on U.S. CD. Though conceived as a live album to follow up Ellington at Newport, it was actually a studio effort, which explains its inclusion here. (And the landmark Newport LP is hopefully being saved for another box set!) To give the illusion of the album having been recorded at Miami Beach’s Bal Masque club, applause was overdubbed onto the New York City-made recordings; that applause has been removed from the disc here. What we’re left with is an enjoyable set of “danceable standards” (in the parlance of the original liner notes) done Ellington-style. These include “Alice Blue Gown” from the Broadway musical Irene, and even a Latin-style, cha-cha-ready “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from, well, you know! “Satan Takes a Holiday” gets a low-down, sly treatment with Ellington on keys and Harry Carney on baritone sax, and “The Peanut Vendor” also goes Latin as a wild, swinging close to what would have been the first set of the live show. The second half features a mini-set of operetta classics including “Indiana Love Call,” “The Donkey Serenade” and “Gypsy Love Song.” With players like Ellington, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Quentin “Butter” Jackson, those staples sound contemporary. The only one of Ellington’s own songs on the LP is “Satin Doll.” The 1953 Ellington/Strayhorn song was still relatively recent at that point, and gets a fresh performance.

Loren Schoenberg, the Artistic Director of Harlem’s National Jazz Museum, offers an informative introductory essay to The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection. It includes brief reflections on each of the titles contained in the box set. However, the original liner notes from Legacy’s definitive reissues are much missed. They varied in length; Will Friedwald wrote four pages for Blue Rose while various contributors offered 26 (!) pages for Such Sweet Thunder covering every aspect of the album’s creation and stereo reconstruction. It’s certainly understandable that the detailed essays aren’t reprinted in these box sets’ booklets, as the suggested retail price is kept relatively low. But might Legacy consider making the original notes available, perhaps as .pdf files, to purchasers? They certainly would contribute mightily to one’s enjoyment of the music. Following Schoenberg’s essay here, the booklet contains the track listing for each album plus personnel and discographical annotation.

Duke Ellington’s
music is as recognizable today as it was half a century ago. Tributes to the great man are still plentiful, with Joe Jackson’s 2012 album The Duke just one recent example. He once penned “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Well, this volume of sophisticated yet accessible, serious yet playful jazz means a heck of a lot.

You can order The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 right here!

Written by Joe Marchese

December 7, 2012 at 11:54

One Response

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  1. C. Nessa, in a comment on Amazon, states “There was an unfortunate (stupid) editing error on the Such Sweet Thunder cd and Sony have failed to correct it here. It would have taken less than an hour in the studio.”

    Does anyone know what this error was? The comment seems to suggest that the same error was on the last CD edition too. By the way, I wonder if C. Nessa is Chuck Nessa, the jazz record producer who helped make many Art Ensemble of Chicago records.

    I completely agree about the idea of pdfs. In fact these sets should start including an extra CD with pdfs and graphic info. The cost is actually trivial.


    December 11, 2012 at 07:56

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