Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown (2004)
For the sake of honesty, I must admit that I have never particularly enjoyed music recorded before the '50s, though the occasional interloper has caught my ear and found itself an exception. The problem with the earlier music mostly has to do with technology. First, sound quality is a mixed bag (and often a disaster) by modern terms; and second, length limitations prohibited any stretching out, whether in solo or ensemble space. The latter consideration gets at the core of what constitutes modern jazz, and it's an unfortunate dividing line.
Duke Ellington's concert bands broke through this boundary around the turn of the century, with entrancing results. Following on the heels of Masterpieces by Ellington, producer George Avakian introduced the original Ellington Uptown with a flourish. Columbia has bunched this reissue with Masterpieces by Ellington and Festival Session , including original liner notes and heavy essays by historian Patricia Willard. Ellington Uptown is the fourth release of a record which originally came with five tracks, having since been picked over and rearranged repeatedly by Columbia.
There's nothing to complain about with this combination of standards ("Take the 'A' Train," "The Mooche," "Perdido"), suites ("Harlem Suite," "Controversial Suite," and "Liberian Suite"), and one Louie Bellson original ("Skin Deep") which is essentially a vehicle for lots of drumming. The reissue, containing recordings from 1947 and 1951-52, sounds good: hi-fi indeed. This particular combination of tunes actually comes across a bit unnerving, making you sit up and pay attention when vocalists pop in and out, composition and improvisation change seats, and the tone of pieces shifts dramatically. But the upside is that diversity is basically a good thing.
Notable moments include (of course) Louie Bellson's pert drumming and blizzard-laden solo space on the opener. "Take the 'A' Train" goes from piano trio to big band and back, featuring gentle if spare vocals (plus scatting) by Betty Roche, infectiously melodic and casually sophisticated. More of Duke's piano comes through again on "Perdido," playfully bouncing in the lower register but still hanging on the occasional oblique harmonies that he used like spice. "The Controversial Suite" places old-timey dance music alongside a skip-happy counterpoint, and "The Liberian Suite" (tracks broken into its six parts) swings hard but touches enough on the blues to be touching.
Columbia's monsoon of reissues allows listeners to pick and choose among some very fine music, and Ellington Uptown is no exception to the general rule. It's certainly diverse enough, containing spaces filled by solo piano, piano trio, fanfares, full-on big band, and instrumental solos and interludes.
Track Listing: 1. Skin Deep 2. The Mooche 3. Take the "A" Train 4. A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite) 5. Perdido. The Controversial Suite: 6. Before My Time 7. Later. The Liberian Suite: 8. I Like the Sunrise 9. Dance No. 1 10. Dance No. 2 11. Dance No. 3 12. Dance No. 4 13. Dance No. 5
Personnel: Duke Ellington: Piano; Hilton Jefferson: Alto Sax; Louie Bellson: Drums; Quentin Jackson: Trombone; Francis Williams: Trumpet; Wendell Marshall: Bass; Al Sears: Tenor Sax; Fred Guy: Guitar; Johnny Hodges: Clarinet, Alto and Soprano Sax; Ray Nance: Trumpet, Violin; Al Hibbler: Vocals; Junior Raglin: Bass; Paul Gonsalves: Tenor Sax; Claude Jones: Trombone; Clark Terry:Trumpet; Lawrence D. Brown: Trombone; Willie "The Lion" Smith Quartet: Alto Sax; Russell Procope: Alto Sax, Clarinet; Oscar Pettiford: Bass; Tyree Glenn: Trombone, Vibraphone; Shorty Baker: Trumpet; Jimmy Hamilton: Clarinet, Tenor Sax; Shelton Hemphill: Trumpet; Britt Woodman: Trombone; Sonny Greer:Drums, Tympani [Timpani]; John Hamilton: 12-String Bass Guitar; Al Killian: Trumpet; Harry Carney: Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax; Betty Roche: Vocals; Cat Anderson: Trumpet; Juan Tizol: Trombone; Billy Strayhorn: Piano; Willie Cook: Trumpet.