April 29th marks the 107th anniversary of Edward Kennedy Ellington's birth and in May he will have been gone for 32 years. Yet we have still not come to terms with the magnitude of Duke's legacy not only to 20th Century music but to the very idea of jazz itself. Too many take reductionist approaches to Ellington, ones that emphasize one or another aspect of his accomplishments without considering the totality. They fall into such traps as "the Duke's instrument was his orchestra or "Ellington reached his creative peak in the late '30s and early '40s or "the Ellington band was in decline in the years before the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 . What these statements ignore are such important facts as Ellington's towering importance as a jazz pianist, his singular achievement of meeting a payroll 52 weeks a year for over four decades and his incredible fecundity as a composer in the last decades of his life, most significantly after the death of his musical alter ego Billy Strayhorn
These five CDs (The Treasury Shows and Gus Wildi Recordings are both two-CD sets) present lesser known aspects of Ellington's legacy: solo piano recordings from Ellington's private stockpile from the '60s and 1971, 1945 radio transcriptions and studio big band recordings from the two years before Newport 1956.
The most revelatory CD and the most significant release is The Piano Player, which includes solo piano versions of 6 of the 11 movements of "The River , the ballet suite Ellington wrote for choreographer Alvin Ailey's company. Ellington's piano presents a full, detailed blueprint of the orchestral music the suite would become, his playing suggesting just how resourceful a pianist Duke could be. There are other pianistic gems here too including an utterly original "Blues No. 1 that became the flamenco-tinged "Guitar Amour in the film Paris Blues, two deeply felt versions of "Meditation and a long, sprightly "Nagoya , later orchestrated as part of the "Ad Lib On Nippon suite. Closing out the album are three tracks from behind-the-scenes jams recorded after big band sessions in 1971, featuring Duke with Wild Bill Davis (organ), Joe Benjamin (bass) and Rufus Jones (drums).
The 1945 radio transcriptions on The Treasury Shows give us a glimpse at the music Ellington was playing and promoting that year. For commercial considerations were indeed important, which accounts for four vocalists being featured at a time when vocalists were eclipsing big bands as star attractions. So there are tunes here Duke had written with the hope of pop success like "Kissing Bug , "Everything But You and a song, sung here by Al Hibbler, that deserves to be rescued from oblivion by one of today's classic pop singers, "Every Hour on the Hour . These broadcasts also offer a chance to hear pieces that did not remain in the band's active book, including "Mood to Be Wooed (a creamy Johnny Hodges alto sax feature), "Way Low , "Old King Dooji and "Emancipation Celebration . And don't miss the Duke's etymology of the word 'hip', as recounted in introducing "Unbooted Character .
The quasi-pirate European label Lone Hill Jazz has gathered the two albums Ellington made for Gus Wildi's Bethlehem label in the months before Newport 1956, Historically Speaking - The Duke and Duke Ellington Presents as well as Ellington '55, originally released on Capitol, on two CDs as The Complete Gus Wildi Recordings (sic). Both Bethlehem albums are available, individually, on Rhino and the Capitol was reissued by Blue Note a couple of years ago. Historically Speaking was the strongest of the three original LPs, with often wonderful, often first, high fidelity recordings of Duke's early works like "East St. Louis Toodle-O , "Creole Love Call and "Jack the Bear . As was Duke's wont, they are all given updated new arrangements, but ones close enough to the originals to please nostalgia buffs. Duke Ellington Presents and Ellington '55 both featured a mix of Ellingtonia, pop standards and pieces associated with other big bands. Among the surprises in the latter two categories are Gerald Wilson's Latinized arrangement on "Summertime , a highly charged "In the Mood and a "Honeysuckle Rose beginning with Duke's piano recalling Fats Waller and ending with Jimmy Hamilton's boppish clarinet over trumpets playing Charlie Parker's line on the changes "Scrapple from the Apple . Throughout we have the privilege of hearing one of Duke's finest bands, with solos from the likes of Clark Terry, Willie Cook and Ray Nance, trumpets; Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, saxophones and Britt Woodman and Quentin Jackson, trombones.
Tracks and Personnel
The Piano Player
Tracks: Meditation; Single Petal Of A Rose; Blues '" take 1; Nagoya; Unknown - Little African Flower; Meditation; T.G.T.T. - Little Purple Flower; THE RIVER '" A Ballet Suite: The Spring - The Run - The Meander '" Grap - The Lake '" Stud; Riddle; Blues '" take 2; Blues '" take 3.
Personnel: Duke Ellington: piano, Wild Bill Davis: organ, Joe Benjamin: bass, Rufus Jones: drums.
The Treasury Shows
Tracks: CD 1: (Theme) Take The "A" Train; Carnegie Blues; I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me; Mood To Be Wooed; Kissing Bug; Chelsea Bridge-DE Bond Promo-(I Want) Something To Live For-Clementine; Take The "A" Train; A Series Of Four In A Minor Mood: Way Low, Solid Old Man, Summertime, Old King Dooji; If I Loved You; Unbooted Character; Just A-Sittin' And A-Rockin'; Hollywood Hangover; Caravan Three Cent Stomp; Yesterdays.
CD 2 Blues On The Double; Riff Staccato; Cotton Tail; Take The "A" Train; Subtle Slough; C-Jam Blues; Every Hour On The Hour; The Jeep Is Jumpin'; Take The "A" Train; Creole Love Call; Frankie And Johnny Everything But You; Emancipation Celebration; Warm Valley; Take The "A" Train.
The Complete Gus Wildi Recordings