The 100th anniversary of the birth of bandleader and composer Duke Ellington came this past April. In its wake, the record companies decided to take advantage of the momentous occasion to put together some fine reissue packages, some quite large and others single disc affairs, that will please many an Ellington devotee and hopefully market the music to novice ears.
Starting off with the grandest concept to display the Ellington magic, RCA Victor has assembled a 24-CD boxed set entitled The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973. Of course, much of Ellington's most important early work was documented on the label, especially with the Blanton/Webster unit. Then, there was the return to RCA in 1966 that produced two distinctive masterpieces- The Far East Suite and His Mother Called Him Bill. In between these two periods was much more of interest, including the famous Seattle Concert of 1952 and the three Sacred Concerts, brought together in one place for the very first time.
While the investment on this one may be large, one can rest assured of having everything that Ellington put down on tape during the documented periods, all sounding better sonically due to advancements in remastering technology. That means unissued takes and alternates, a complete discography, and a lavish booklet with a number of fine essays by the likes of Dan Morgenstern, Stanley Dance, Orrin Keepnews, and many others.
Ellington would move to Columbia Records during the '50s and early '60s and further quintessential artifacts would be the fruit of his labor there. Most recently, Columbia's Legacy division has come up with a few choice selections to reissue while unearthing some surprises in the process. The biggest of these has to be the reinvention of Ellington's 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. For the first time ever, The Complete Ellington at Newport 1956 presents on two discs the entire concert performance plus the entire studio session that was passed off as a concert (it seems that Columbia had thought the concert tape to be marred by poor mike placement which led to tracks being redone in the studio) upon the initial release of the LP. And if that's not enough, most of this set is heard in stereo for the very first time.
That this set belongs in any comprehensive jazz collection is a given. Even those who have studied this one and know all of Paul Gonsalves' 27 choruses on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" by heart will find new magic to savor. The fact of the matter is that the tapes happened to be rolling when Ellington and his men were obviously inspired and playing at the peak of their powers and we get the benefits of hearing it in all its glory as it really went down.
Taken chronologically, the reissue of Such Sweet Thunder comes next, being recorded over various sessions in 1956 and '57. Inspired by the great plays of Shakespeare, Ellington based this suite on musical portraits of some of the writer's most memorable characters. In turn his musical vocabulary perfectly fits the personalities of such distinctive soloists as Harry Carney, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, and Johnny Hodges. Bonuses here include ten either unreleased or previously rare tracks with the entire program in stereo for the first time.
Although it had been written almost 20 years earlier, the six-part suite that would become Black, Brown, and Beige would be tossed around many times before making it to the 1958 album that would feature gospel star Mahalia Jackson. The justly-praised number "Come Sunday" would go on to become a classic, but that's just one of many sound reasons for revisiting this magnum opus. For one thing, alternates of each of the six parts of the work exist, giving us another entirely new and previously unheard version to sample. There are also three additional unissued performances to be heard, including Jackson's a cappella take on "Come Sunday."
Although all of the Ellington discs in the Legacy series benefit from well- written essays, original liners, and a wealth of session photos, the improvements in sound bid highly for replacing your worn and previous editions. Nowhere else is the sonic upgrade more noticeable than with the new version of Ellington's soundtrack for the movie Anatomy of a Murder. Since its release, the band has been muddled in a sea of echo and reverb that almost deter one from even attempting a listen. Not so with this new reissue, and once again many can appreciate what certainly has to be one of Ellington's best and most underrated works from the late '50s. Johnny Hodges' way with the reoccurring theme called "Flirtibird" is well worth the price of admission alone, but then don't forget the 12 bonus cuts and a highly informative essay written by Wynton Marsalis. Encore!
Finally, we come to the epic meeting in 1961 of both the full Ellington and Basie orchestras for what would become First Time! The Count Meets the Duke. Although much has been made in regards to the tensions that existed during the session between various band members and even Basie and Ellington themselves, the musical evidence refers to the contrary and is nothing short of pure delight. And once again, you guessed it, more bonus tracks give us an even more complete portrait of this encounter. What could have been a disaster, both sonically and musically, holds up surprisingly well with a shared program of both Ellington and Basie material and many spots for the key soloists in both bands. Two of the best jazz bands ever to grace the planet on one album; what more needs to be said?