Everyone who loves jazz knows Duke Ellington, but for more recent generations, that knowledge is probably based on the equivalent of a “greatest hits” album. “Take The A Train,” Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and several other classics are a nice start, but to be truly wowed, you’ve got to delve deeper.
“The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958,” a nine CD set, provides just such an opportunity. These tracks were the result of Ellington’s move from the confines of three-minute 78 records in the band’s early decades to the expansive Long Playin (LP) form that allowed far longer tracks. In fact, many of the tunes on these nine CDs had been cut before in their original short versions before Ellington came to Columbia. The box set contains nine miniature facsimile editions of the actual albums (with microscopic notes) holding the CDs. Bonus tracks abound.
The LP form also allowed Ellington to be innovative, recording concept albums like “A Drum Is A Woman,” which chronicles the history of jazz, and one of his masterpieces, “Black, Brown and Beige.” While listening to this treasure trove, I was consistently knocked out. It’s hard not to be when encountering the orchestra with Mahalia Jackson singing “Come Sunday” from “Black, Brown and Beige.”
The albums are full of brilliant compositions I only fleetingly knew, like “Early Autumn” from “The Cosmic Scene” and the languid “The Star-Crossed Lovers (aka Pretty Girl)” from “Such Sweet Thunder,” an entire album based on Shakespearian sonnets (with some older songs).
Ellington was a master arranger who used every inch of his orchestral palette in his arrangements of tunes like “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” from “Dance With Duke in Stereo At The Bal Masque!” Even when the orchestra (recording on the East Coast) backed a great singer like Rosemary Clooney (recording her vocals on the West Coast), on “Blue Rose,” the voicings are never less than sublime.
For extraordinary genius, nothing can top “The Mooche” from “Ellington Uptown.” One of the greatest recordings in the history of jazz, “The Mooche” is the ultimate showcase for the whole band, starting with driving primal drums that provide an ever-present undercurrent. When the guttural trumpet starts “talking” over the sensuous train-whistle, three-reed harmony that opens the piece, you know you’re in rare territory. This leads to a gorgeous call and response between high and low reeds in the next section. Crescendos rush through the piece, topped off by otherworldly flourishes.
I’ve spent the weeks listening to almost nothing but these nine albums, but I know that’s just the beginning. Once you get deep into Duke Ellington, I’m happy to say there’s no escape.