Duke Ellington—Masterpieces By Ellington (Columbia/Legacy)
“Masterpieces By Ellington” captures the greatest large group in American history at a pivotal time. Recorded in December, 1950, the album was foremost notable as the last stand for Sonny Greer, who held the drum chair down for Ellington’s first 27 years as a leader. It also marked the start of Johnny Hodges’ hiatus from the lead alto spot. Hodges made some excellent small-group recordings for labels like Verve and Bethlehem before returning in 1956; he added the last spark to ignite all pistons of Ellington’s “comeback” band, and stayed until his death in 1970.
It’s an awesome record, and the CD comes recommended. But what really sells this for the hard-core Ellington fan is that it offers extended takes of several classic charts in a studio setting. “Masterpieces” represents the special confluence of revolutionary technologies in the master’s palette at that time. Along with Columbia label-mate Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington was among the world’s first to master the potentialities not only of stereo sound, but also of the long-playing (LP) record format. This was the same group, basically, that waxed the seminal (and shockingly rare) “Track 360” for the label’s first stereo demonstration record, sharing space with the stereo debut of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”. But this was nothing new for this crew.
Moreso than any other single musician, Duke Ellington led the way in showing how music could be documented at every crucial phase of the evolution of recording technology in the first half of the 20th century. From the 78rpm discs of 1927, the years of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Reflections in Tempo” (the first song to take up two sides of a disc) through the primitive plate-pressings made on the spot in Fargo, 1940 and the literal live-wire acts that produced all those airshots, mono was all there was, and no one did it better. Stereo was his cue to re-record everything, all the while creating new stuff—small-groups, soundtracks, spirituals.
The album leads with an epic reading of “Mood Indigo” running 15 minutes-plus. It is an exceptionally satisfying piece of music, even by the composer’s stratospheric standards. “Sophisticated Lady” follows, running nearly 12 minutes—pleasant, but not mind-blowing. “The Tattooed Bride” picks up the pace, a brand-new composition with tight, aggressive ensemble writing that lays the Ellington-Strayhorn affinity for neo-classical counterpoint (think the Glenn Miller version of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”) against the episodic swing style they invented. There’s really a lot going on with this track, and it’s the emotional center of the album; it also presages another epochal decade for the Ellington band. They’re like bulls in the gate.
After that, the rest is just really good icing on a cake that could be eaten by itself. “Solitude” gets eight minutes, followed by three brief bonus tracks recorded a year later: “Vagabonds”, “Smada” and “Rock Skippin’ At the Blue Note”. Nice stuff, but it’s easy to grasp the symmetrical perfection of the original LP issue. All in all, “Masterpieces By Ellington” is a first-rate example of large-group jazz that has barely aged in the 60 years since it was recorded, and it’s truly one of the unheralded gems in Ellington’s output.
email@example.com; February 18, 2011