The Blanton-Webster band sides represent an unparalleled burst of creativity in the history of jazz and stand without question as the best recordings of Ellington’s storied career. However, since the mid-nineties they have only been available with bland packaging and marginally acceptable sound, a woeful compromise since technological advancements had long since paved the way for a better package. RCA eventually remastered their entire Ellington catalog, and recently released this dramatically improved version of the Blanton-Webster sides from 1939-42. This is a set that everyone should hear; those who have never heard it will certainly enjoy it for the great music; those who already have the previous version will appreciate its crisp new remastering.
As mentioned above, these are historically significant recordings. The bandstand was already littered was Ellington greats like Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Juan Tizol, and Sonny Greer, but the most recent members of the entourage were the ones that made these recordings special.
Jimmy Blanton almost singlehandedly created the notion of swing and carved out a niche for the bass in a big band setting; few musicians can claim that they reinvented their chosen instrument as Blanton did. “Jack the Bear” serves as a prime showcase for Blanton’s dexterity and a fitting testament to a man who revolutionized the instrument and gave the Ellington a little extra juice. It’s inconceivable to think of a song like “Take the ‘A’ Train” without Blanton’s driving accompaniment.
Ben Webster was the second pivotal addition to the band, and with the brief moments allotted to him in the 78 format, he created masterful solos that seem like compositions unto themselves. “Chelsea Bridge,” Webster’s showcase, is a prime example of his ability to glide over the changes like a figure skater. He would later go on to record as a leader to even wider acclaim, but these early recordings paved the way for Ellington stars like Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves, who were also groomed by Ellington with compositions tailor-made for their particular style.
However, the most significant arrival was that of Billy Strayhorn, who became Ellington’s closest collaborator and arranged or composed several flawless gems. Although not credited in the name given to the band, Strayhorn was more responsible than anyone for shaping the classic Ellington sound. He showed a particular knack for bringing out the best in Johnny Hodges, whose elegant, sweeping phrases graced many a Strayhorn ballad. His death in the mid-sixties was a loss from which Ellington and his band never recovered.
All of these elements combined to create a peerless working unit that peeled off classic recording after classic recording. Well-known Ellingtonia like “Cottontail,” “Concerto for Cootie,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” are juxtaposed with slightly flawed gems like “Jumpin’ Punkins” and “Congo Brava”. Unlike other bands from the time whose recordings have lost their luster, the Blanton/ Webster sides seem both enmeshed in their time period yet also able to transcend it, yielding a listening experience comprised of equal parts nostalgia and discovery.
The collection of wistful ballads, tone poems, and jumping swing never fails to delight, and sequences of back-to-back classics (“Chelsea Bridge”, “Perdido”, and “The ‘C’ Jam Blues” on Disc Three) are juxtaposed with pleasantly surprising unknowns. If there’s one weakness in the collection, it’s the vocal numbers. Herb Jeffries and Ivie Anderson were capable singers at the time, but once Sinatra revolutionized pop singing, everything that came before sounds dated today.
RCA is forgiven for their delay in reissuing this music with beautiful packaging and sonic enhancement; it’s hard to believe that these recordings could sound any better than this. An absolutely essential disc that is sure to be one of the top ten reiusses of the year.
Visit Bluebird on the web.
Personnel: Duke Ellington-piano; Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance-trumpet; Rex Stewart-cornet; Joe