- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Duke Ellington

Masterpieces by Ellington

Ellington Uptown

Piano in the Foreground

Piano in the Background

Blues in Orbit

(All on Columbia Legacy)

Go to just about any decent record store, and you’ll find that the jazz shelves are dominated by the Duke Ellington section. The selection of Ellingtonia is so vast that it is guaranteed to bewilder all but the most devoted jazz aficionados. Try looking for “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and you’ll find well over 100 Ellington CDs that feature one version or another of the song.

One reason for the confusing riches is that over Mr. Ellington’s long, brilliant career, he repeatedly recorded his greatest hits. He would head into the recording studio every chance he got, whether with his famous orchestra, or with smaller groups drawn from the ranks of his band. And then there are the dozens of recordings made on the bandstand over decades of touring the world.

How strange, then, that with so many Ellington records on the market, one of the best and most important discs by the composer has been unavailable in the States for years. The record is “Masterpieces by Ellington,” and it has at last been reissued on CD in the United States by Columbia Legacy.

Recorded in 1950-51, “Masterpieces” features several of Mr. Ellington’s best-known songs, “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude.” These are not, however, mere rehashes of hit tunes. Mr. Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn were constantly rearranging and reinventing the band’s music. “Masterpieces by Ellington” represents the pinnacle of those efforts. Each song is stretched to epic length in a creative tour de force.

A vigorous debate has gone on for decades over whether Mr. Ellington’s genius was best expressed in the short arrangements he wrote to fit on 78 rpm or in the long-form works he composed for the concert stage. I have always been partial to the three-and-a-half minute gems (the best selection of which can be found on the RCA Ellington collection, “The Blanton-Webster Band”).

The most frequent complaint about Mr. Ellington’s longer works is that the pieces never quite achieved the sort of structural integrity expected of symphonies. Rather, Mr. Ellington most often avoided the issue of long-form structure by creating long works that in reality are a set of shorter arrangements pieced together into suites.

“Masterpieces” represents an altogether different long-form strategy — theme and variations — that is far more successful than most of the Ellington suites. With each of the well-known songs on the record, Mr. Ellington starts off with a faithful rendering of the tune as it was first recorded. What follows is chorus after chorus of permutations, each more surprising and revealing than the last. Mr. Ellington tries counterpoint, he alters the underpinning harmonic structure, segues into waltz time and, some 15 minutes later, finally resolves the peregrinations by returning to the original conception. Along the way are heard solos that can only be described as perfect, delivered by a who’s who of the great Ellington sidemen: Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, Clark Terry on trumpet and Lawrence Brown on trombone.

Another fresh reissue from Columbia Legacy, “Ellington Uptown,” features Mr. Ellington’s most satisfying long composition that is neither a suite nor a set of variations, “Tone Parallel to Harlem.” Dazzling, coherent and moving, “Harlem” is but one high point on a record packed with thrilling music.

The Ellington neophyte looking for the definitive (though far from the original) version of “Take the ‘A’ Train” will find it on “Uptown.”

The track starts with an extended piano solo that Mr. Ellington repeated and refined for years. Then comes Betty Roche with a couple of bebop vocal choruses, followed by a quick statement of the melody. Then the tempo ratchets into low gear, and Mr. Gonsalves starts work on a solo that rivals his more famous marathon on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

Here Mr. Gonsalves begins at a moody, deliberative pace. In a flash the band explodes into a burning tempo, with Mr. Gonsalves at the lead, maintaining a seemingly impossible momentum. The piece ends with a cascading tenor sax cadenza. The “Uptown” version of “‘A’ Train” is one of the most exciting, compelling cuts in all of jazz.

Unlike “Masterpieces by Ellington,” however, “Ellington Uptown” has been available, in one form or another, for years. This new reissue reshuffles the program order from that of the previous CD release and adds some extra (and not particularly inspired) material unrelated to the original recording session.

This year has seen a raft of other Ellington reissues from Columbia Legacy: “Piano in the Foreground,” “Piano in the Background” and “Blues in Orbit.” The first of those, a small group recording featuring Mr. Ellington at the piano, is not nearly as appealing as “Piano in the Background,” which also spotlights his keyboard skills.

“Piano in the Background” finds Mr. Ellington with his big band, playing many of his best-loved tunes in familiar form, including “Perdido,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” and, again, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Unlike earlier recordings of the same material, here many of the solos that would have gone to other instruments in the band are taken by Mr. Ellington.

The record affords a terrific opportunity to hear Mr. Ellington’s distinctive, orchestral approach to the piano. His solos are often every bit as carefully constructed as his big band compositions, and the punchy chords he uses sound remarkably similar to the brass figures he writes for his orchestra.

Perhaps the best thing about the last of these discs, “Blues in Orbit,” is its title. The music itself, a set of blowing blues tunes, tends to blend together into a less than distinctive mass. This is good stuff for the Ellington devotee but hardly a must-have for the rest of you. With all those Ellington titles available in the record store, you’ve got plenty of catching up to do as it is.

Eric Felten is a jazz singer and trombonist in Washington. His most recent album is “Nowhere Without You.”

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