A three–disc Ellington hors d’oeuvre,
assembled to whet one’s appetite for the main course, a comprehensive 24–volume boxed set entitled The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, 1927–1973,
honoring the memory of the maestro in the hundredth year since his birth. As we mentioned last month, the set includes a complete discography, personnel lists and a number of enlightening essays about Ellington and his music by experts in that area. It is divided into six subsets — The Early Recordings (1927–34); The Early Forties Recordings (1940–42); The Complete Mid–Forties Recordings; The All–Star Sessions and Seattle Concert (1952); The Three Sacred Concerts (1965/68/73); and The Last Recordings (1966–73). The unabridged package will cost in the neighborhood of $400. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s also Ellington. The three–disc sampler sent to reviewers like myself skates over much of the territory, opening with an early New Orleans–style recording (October ’27) of “Black and Tan Fantasy” and closing with “Mecuria–The Lion,” recorded in December 1973. RCA has done a marvelous job in cleaning up the source material, and there is a minimum of intrusive surface noise from one end of the chronology to the other. To one who has never been an Ellington aficionado, at least a part of the fascination lies in tracing the evolution of Duke’s ensemble from its relatively primitive early–swing origins to the more elaborate and cosmopolitan melodies and harmonies that prevailed in later years as Ellington, Strayhorn and their colleagues positioned the orchestra at the summit of modern big–band Jazz. It is to Ellington’s everlasting credit that he was able to keep the band together long enough to accomplish that purpose. The growth is unmistakably clear in the two versions of “Sophisticated Lady” (from 1940 and ’65 — with strings), “Take the ‘A’ Train” (1941, ’66) and “Caravan” (1945, ’52, the last with its composer, trombonist Juan Tizol, playing the melody) included in the sampler, and is undoubtedly even more apparent throughout the more inclusive 24–disc set. The Ellington orchestra, as everyone knows by now, inhabits a unique and exalted position in the annals of Jazz, and for its myriad fans the RCA Victor anthology confers an abundant and invaluable lode of musical riches. If its acquisition means robbing the piggy bank, that seems a small enough price to pay.
Track listing: Disc 1 — Black and Tan Fantasy; The Mooche; Doin’ the Voom Voom; A Night at the Cotton Club, Part 1; Jungle Nights in Harlem; Ring Dem Bells; That Lindy Hop; Rockin’ in Rhythm; Creole Rhapsody, Part 1; Creole Rhapsody, Part 2; Echoes of the Jungle; Mood Indigo/Hot and Bothered/Creole Love Call; Daybreak Express; My Old Flame; Jack the Bear; Cotton Tail; Never No Lament (61:02). Disc 2 — Sepia Panorama; Sophisticated Lady; Day Dream; A Lull at Dawn; Take the “A” Train; Bakiff; I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good; Menelik–The Lion of Judah; Passion Flower; Rocks in My Bed; Chelsea Bridge; Perdido; I’m Beginning to See the Light; Work Song; Caravan; The Minor Goes Muggin’; Tonk; Just Squeeze Me; Midriff (60:50). Disc 3 — Long, Long Journey; Caravan; Come Sunday; New World A–Comin’; A Christmas Surprise; The Biggest and Busiest Intersection; The Brotherhood; Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ without God; Isfahan; Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues); Take the “A” Train; The Second Portrait of the Lion; Sophisticated Lady; Blood Count; Raincheck; Basin Street Blues; Mecuria, the Lion (73:27).