Of course, 1999 was the centennial celebration of the birth of that exalted American icon- Duke Ellington. And never a nation to not make the most out of a creative marketing ploy, any label with some Ellington in its holdings made a mad dash to remaster, repackage, compile, or generally work the hell out of its product line. Producing a set with the greatest intrigue of the lot, Mosaic's reissue of material from one of Ellington's most misunderstood periods mines material that has been unavailable for quite some time. Following Ellington's quintessential sides cut for RCA Victor in the '40s and the solidifying of his reputation via a string of Columbia albums in the '50s, he found himself without a record label in the summer of 1962. Then enter Frank Sinatra and his Reprise imprimatur. Once again, Ellington would be back in the studios, soon to be cutting a few of the most unusual projects he had done to date and serving as A&R man for Reprise sessions by the likes of Alice Babs, Bud Powell, and Dollar Brand.
Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back?/Recollections of the Big Band Era
Over nine sessions conducted between November of 1962 and January of 1963, Ellington laid down the tracks that comprise the LP's Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back? (shelved and not issued by Reprise until 1965) and Recollections of the Big Band Era (a 1974 Atlantic compilation of further performances). Shifting away from original compositions of his own, a practice that would largely be the norm for his Reprise affairs, the focus is on customary tunes from the swing era in jazz and they range from Erskine Hawkins' "Tuxedo Junction" to Quincy Jones' "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set." In between, we also find discerning treatments of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Rhapsody in Blue." Although each cut is rather brief, averaging about three minutes a pop, the arrangements are crafty and Ellington's star soloists make the most of their various spots.
Of all the Reprise material to be avowed by fans and critics alike, Afro-Bossa is the pick of the litter and it also happens to be one of the finest examples of '60s Ellingtonia. A suite of twelve pieces, much of the core material was interpolated from earlier compositions, the most famous being "Purple Gazell" which started out life as "Angelica" from the Ellington and Coltrane Impulse encounter. Despite what might be indicated by its title, the pieces heard here have little to do with a Brazilian bossa nova or an African drumming ritual, but instead there's a spicy Caribbean flavor present that gets its seasoning from various auxiliary percussion.
How does one single out highlights from what is actually a quintessential bit of musical perfection? Well, if you must, there's the infectious tango riff from the saxophones that propels "Caline (Silk Lace)," with some boisterous clarinet work from Jimmy Hamilton to boot. "Tigress" boasts massed percussion and some smoky tenor from Paul Gonsalves, while the breathtaking beauty of Johnny Hodges' entrance on "Angu" recalls his similar prowess with "Isfahan" from The Far East Suite. Rounding out this classic are two tracks not released before commercially ("Resume #1" and "Resume # 2") that find Elllington, and possibly Strayhorn, working in a piano trio on medleys from the various Afro-Bossa themes. Nothing all that revelatory occurs, but it's a charming nightcap all the same.
Duke Ellington's Jazz Violin Session
While on tour abroad in the winter of 1963, Duke invited two noted European jazz violinists to a loose jam session- Stephane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen. Along with the core rhythm team of Ellington, bassist Ernie Shepard, and drummer Sam Woodyard, the rest of the group would include Ray Nance also on violin, Russell Procope on alto sax, Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, and Buster Cooper on trombone. Included here because of space permitting and the relative time frame, Reprise never saw fit to issue the relaxed proceedings and it wouldn't be until 1976 that they finally saw release on an Atlantic set. Some of the most uncharacteristic of Ellington's work from the period, there's nonetheless some affected moments of unadulterated swing, particularly on "Limbo Jazz," which had turned up on Duke's Impulse session with Coleman Hawkins the previous summer.
The Symphonic Ellington
For the most part, jazz and strings have served as very unlikely bedfellows. In the entire history of the music, only a few really transcendent projects involving the two have been produced, most notably Focus from Stan Getz and Charlie Parker With Strings. Too long taken for granted, the pieces that comprise The Symphonic Ellington are wholly successful ventures in the "jazz and strings" bag that were recorded at various dates during Ellington's 1963 European sojourn.
Up first are the three movements of the work "Night Creature." Described by Ellington as an effort to help "make the symphony swing," he manages to do just that and there's no hint of the vapid or saccharine quality that so often seems to stifle similar-minded affairs. "Non-Violent Integration" and "La Scala, She Too Pretty To Be Blue" are oddly inconclusive, but the closing "Harlem" proves to be a stunning tour-de-force. Programmatic in nature, the piece moves through various moods and tempos, highlights some inspired soloists, and tells a story while flawlessly conjoining both the full Ellington band and the Paris Symphony Orchestra. Bravo!
Ellington '65 & Ellington '66
The commercial sensibilities that were undeniably part of the project involving swing-era standards takes on a perplexing twist with the next two Reprise dates. Similar to the albums Count Basie was pumping out for Reprise at the same time, the fare was simply pop songs of the day, although the strength of Ellington and Strayhorn's charts manage to steer both albums away from being irrelevant failures. And amidst guileful arrangements of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and the Beatles' "All My Lovin'" we do get "Satin Doll," "A Beautiful Friendship," and "Elllington '66."
In between the sessions for the previous pop-oriented albums, someone at Disney approached Ellington about unleashing his creative juices on Bobby Sherman's score for the upcoming movie, Mary Poppins. If there was ever a gentleman capable of what seems like a totally ludicrous task it was obviously Duke. The opening strains of "A Spoonful of Sugar" find Johnny Hodges as giddy as a school boy and soon the sheer novelty of the assignment is forgotten and replaced by joy of yet another authoritative Ellington and Strayhorn collaboration. A silk purse from a sow's ear, as it were.
Concert in the Virgin Island
Deceptively packaged, Concert in the Virgin Islands is merely an unadorned assemblage of various 1965 studio dates that would embrace Ellington's final endeavors for Reprise as a leader and getting away from other composer's material, it's back to Ellintgton-penned charts. The four pieces that make up the "Virgin Islands Suite" collectively feature the clarinet of Jimmy Hamilton, the violin work of Ray Nance and some high-register trumpet blowing from Cat Anderson. Other highlights include a Hodges spot on "Big Fat Alice's Blues" and lush Gonsalves on "Chelsea Bridge." All-in-all, a convivial and resolute final chapter to this appealing slice of Ellington.
As with all Mosaic products, this five-disc boxed set is produced as a limited edition and while usually obtainable only through mail order, Warner Brothers will actually furnish select retailers with a small number of copies during its first year of availability. Expertly recorded at such studios as Universal Sound in Chicago and Fine Studios in New York, these recordings feature some of the finest Ellington in terms of sonic quality up to this point in his career. Adding to the overall package, the enclosed booklet features photos, a full discography, and commentary by Ellington biographer Mark Tucker. All recordings are available solely through Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, (203) 327-7111. Please check their website at www.mosaicrecords.com for more information.Collective