Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton/Webster Band (2003)
There's something to be said for conciseness. Ellington and his band members were masters of the most succinct yet complete solos perhaps in jazz history. The two big stars in Duke's orchestral constellation from the early '40s were bassist Jimmie Blanton and his first official voice on tenor, Ben Webster. A recently reissued set of 3 CDs captures what many would consider the band in its prime, recorded only just after Ellington had found his musical soulmate in composer, arranger, and occasional pianist Billy Strayhorn.
Bassist Blanton, who was almost exclusively associated with Duke, had a brief but extraordinarily influential career not unlike guitarist Charlie Christian, who also prematurely passed away in his 20s. For evidence of his legendary status, listen no further than the way he pushes the leader and his fellow band mates on "Jack The Bear" (featuring that timeless final 4-bar statement), or his breathtaking fills through "Sepia Panorama." There are also the awesome unaccompanied duets he recorded with Ellington, a milestone in both arco and pizzicato playing (feast your ears to "Body and Soul" or "Sophisticated Lady"). Webster's robust driving tone on "Five O'Clock Drag" and alternately smooth breathy delivery on such ballads as "Chelsea Bridge" provided yet another key ingredient in Ellington’s band of the period.
Of the many other significant instrumentalists in the band, another standout is altoist Johnny Hodges, jazz balladeer royalty as heard in "I Got It Bad" and "Sentimental Lady." Tricky Sam Nanton's plunger mute mastery, rendering him one of the most voice-like performers on the brass instrument, amazes on "Chloe (Song of Swamp)." Clarinetist Barney Bigard's warm slow delivery on "Across The Track Blues" contrasts with his up-tempo New Orleans roots heard in "Sidewalks of New York" and his classical-to-swinging chops on "Are You Sticking." Harry Carney, jazz's first baritone soloist, is given the feature of "Chocolate Shake." There are countless others to mention; Duke's bands were the equivalent of any Olympic Dream Team.
The textural ensemble arrangements and passages of reed and brass not only set the standard for big bands and jazz orchestras, but created an ideal near insurmountable to improve upon. The Blanton-Webster band excelled through both up-tempo and ballad numbers alike and produced some of the most memorable solos put to wax. Ellington's band, after all, was always his first instrument.
This review originally appeared in All About Jazz-New York (June 2003).
Track Listing: 1. You, You Darlin' 3:20 2. Jack the Bear 3:17 3. Ko-Ko 2:43 4. Morning Glory 3:18 5. So Far, So Good 2:53 6. Conga Brava 2:59 7. Concerto for Cootie 3:20 8. Me and You 2:55 9. Cotton Tail 3:13 10. Never No Lament 3:19 11. Dusk 3:21 12. Bojangles 2:54 13. A Portrait of Bert Williams 3:10 14. Blue Goose 3:23 15. Harlem Air-Shaft 3:00 16. At a Dixie Roadside Diner 2:49 17. All Too Soon 3:31 18. Rumpus in Richmond 2:50 19. My Greatest Mistake 3:27 20. Sepia Panorama 3:25 21. There Shall Be No Night 3:13 22. In a Mellotone 3:17 23. Five O'Clock Whistle 3:19 24. The Flaming Sword 3:09 25. Warm Valley 3:21 26. Across the Track Blues 3:01 27. Chloe (Song of the Swamp) 3:27 28. I Never Felt This Way Before 3:33 29. The Sidewalks of New York 3:15 30. Flamingo 3:24 31. The Girl in My Dreams Tries to Look Like... 3:20 32. Take the "A" Train 2:57 33. Jumpin' Punkins 3:34 34. John Hardy's Wife 3:30 35. Blue Serge 3:23 36. After All 3:23 37. Bakiff 3:26 38. Are You Sticking? 3:06 39. Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin' 3:36 40. The Giddybug Gallop 3:36 41. Pitter Panther Patter 3:03 42. Body and Soul 3:11 43. Sophisticated Lady 2:47 44. Mr. J.B. Blues 3:09 45. Ko-Ko [alternate take] 2:40 46. Bojangles [alternate take] 2:46 47. Sepia Panorama [alternate take] 3:24 48. Jumpin' Punkins [alternate take] 3:42 49. Jump for Joy [alternate take] 2:56 50. Chocolate Shake 2:56 51. I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good) 3:21 52. Clementine 3:01 53. The Brown-Skin Gal (In the Calico Gown) (Ellington/Webster) - 3:11 54. Jump for Joy 2:54 55. Moon Over Cuba 3:15 56. Five O'Clock Drag 3:14 57. Rocks in My Bed 3:09 58. Bli-Blip 3:07 59. Raincheck 2:32 60. What Good Would It Do? (James/Pepper) - 2:48 61. I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I Got 3:17 62. Chelsea Bridge 2:56 63. Perdido 3:10 64. The "C" Jam Blues 2:39 65. Moon Mist 3:00 66. What Am I Here For? 3:27 67. I Don't Mind 2:51 68. Someone 3:10 69. My Little Brown Book 3:14 70. Main Stem 2:51 71. Johnny Come Lately 2:43 72. Hayfoot, Strawfoot 2:36 73. Sentimental Lady 3:04 74. A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship) 2:58 75. Sherman Shuffle 2:38
Personnel: Mercer Ellington - Arranger Johnny Hodges - Clarinet, Reeds, Sax (Alto), Sax (Soprano), Soloist Ray Nance - Trumpet, Violin, Vocals, Soloist Rex Stewart - Cornet, Soloist Ben Webster - Reeds, Arranger, Sax (Tenor), Soloist Cootie Williams - Trumpet, Soloist Lawrence Brown - Trombone, Soloist Herb Jeffries - Vocals, Soloist Ivie Anderson - Vocals, Soloist Jimmy Blanton - Bass, Soloist Sonny Greer - Drums, Soloist Barney Bigard - Clarinet, Reeds, Sax (Tenor), Soloist Harry Carney - Clarinet, Reeds, Sax (Alto), Sax (Baritone), Soloist Duke Ellington - Piano, Arranger, Celeste, Soloist Fred Guy - Guitar Chauncey Haughton - Clarinet, Reeds, Sax (Tenor) Billy Strayhorn - Piano, Arranger, Celeste, Soloist Juan Tizol - Trombone (Valve), Soloist Wallace Jones - Trumpet Otto Hardwick - Reeds, Sax (Alto)