Teo Macero's first Ellington recordings resurface in the latest version of the master's popular '58-'59 sessions issued as Blues In Orbit. With band still riding high after the '56 Newport triumph and fresh off the road from Europe, they recorded a jukebox full of 45 single-sized tracks that bear riveting performances by several classic Ellingtonians including Jimmy Hamilton, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Britt Woodman, Harry Carney, and Billy Strayhorn playing piano on two cuts. And then there's Johnny Hodges. Hodges caresses and finesses his way through ballads, reinventing the language of heartache. His instantly recognizable voice playfully darts in and out of up-tempo arrangements, always sweeping sweetly up a scale, always drenched in blues.
Jimmy Hamilton blows the soulful intro to "Three J's Blues," then after a peppery arrangement returns to a rawer sound. Hodges' best "oh gee" intro pours honey all over "Smada." Once the chorus kicks in, the gloves come off and he wails. A tart trumpet offers good contrast. "Pie Eye's Blues" gives Nance plenty of room to swagger his big-toned yaya trumpet, preceding a rough ride with Gonsalves. The original and the alt take chug along with Jimmy Woode's bass driving the ensemble.
"Sweet and Pungent" uses a sultry slow tempo with a smooth rich reed arrangement against a growly plungered trombone. The solo even more closely imitates a vocal on the alt take, the reeds bathing the ears. A relaxed take on "C Jam Blues" brings Nance's violin back to the forefront with a very different solo than the classic. The pianist leads the bass and drums in a rolling version of "In a Mellow Tone." With Strayhorn on piano, Ellington's free to lead the orchestra with snapping fingers on "Blues in Blueprint." Harry Carney ornaments beautifully on bass clarinet, doubling with Woode midway to the end. Matthew Gee's baritone horn leads the band on "The Swingers Get the Blues," while "Swinger's Jump" lets the rhythm section stoke hot coals for Hodges' fire dance, Woodman's fluent trombone, and Hamilton's soaring clarinet.
The title track has Ellington cradling his idiosyncratic high-end piano stylings with a cool, seamless horn chart. The alt take grips the blue road harder, with Ellington's embellishments as personal as ever. "Villes Ville is the Place, Man" swings evil with Hodges reaching for the sky and Carney earthy on baritone. The runaway train on "Track 360" speeds by in a blink, while Hodges articulates the emotional lessons of "Sentimental Lady" in no hurry at all. Likewise, "Brown Penny" gives Hodges all the space he needs to seduce the ear and ravish the heart.
Blues In Orbit deservingly finds itself on many lists of crucial Ellington releases. The deft precision of these seasoned veterans filtered through the Ellington vision makes this an essential listening experience.
Three J's Blues; Smada; Pie Eye's Blues; Sweet & Pungent; C Jam Blues; In a Mellow Tone; Blues in Blueprint; The Swingers Get the Blues, Too; The Swinger's Jump; Blues In Orbit; Villes Ville is the Place, Man; Track 360; Sentimental Lady; Brown Penny; Pie Eye's Blues (alternate take); Sweet & Pungent (alternate take); The Swinger's Jump (alternate take); Blues In Orbit (alternate take); Track 360 (alternate take).
Duke Ellington- piano; Jimmy Woode- bass; Sam Woodyard, Jimmy Johnson- drums; Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Shorty Baker- trumpet; Ray Nance- trumpet, violin; Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, John Sanders, Booty Wood- trombone; Matthew Gee- trombone, baritone horn; Johnny Hodges, Bill Graham- alto saxophone; Russell Procope- alto saxophone, clarinet; Jimmy Hamilton- tenor saxophone, clarinet; Paul Gonsalves- tenor saxophone; Harry Carney- baritone saxophone; Billy Strayhorn- piano on "Smada" and "Blues in Blueprint."