Storyville Records: A Treasure Trove of Swinging Jazz

Chris May By

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There's a feast of Webster to be heard on The Duke Box, an eight-CD box set which focuses entirely on Duke Ellington's band of the 1940s, in which Webster was the first important tenor saxophone soloist and of which he was a member from 1940-43 and from 1948-49. The discs proceed chronologically, from January 1940 to February 1949.

Ellington's bands of the 1940s are widely considered to be his finest, by virtue of both their personnel and their material. Bassist Jimmy Blanton, who freed the instrument up and helped pave the way for bop, had joined the lineup in 1939 and remained there until his death in 1942. The "Webster-Blanton band" is featured on the first three discs in the box. Other of Ellington's signature soloists heard in that band include alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, alto saxophonist and clarinetist Otto Hardwicke, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, trumpeters Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and Ray Nance, and trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton and Juan Tizol. The drummer, throughout the decade, was Sonny Greer.

The Duke Box also charts the arrival of Billy Strayhorn in the Ellington organization. Strayhorn was recruited as assistant arranger in 1939, and almost immediately began contributing custom originals to the repertoire. His "Take The A Train," first heard here in a 1943 recording on disc four, returns on most of the subsequent discs in the box.

The nine hours of music included on The Duke Box mostly originated as live radio broadcasts made on tour in the US. Sound quality, which has been much enhanced by digital technology, varies, but is always above average. And, as Dan Morgenstern observes in the erudite session notes which make up the bulk of the box's large format, 40-page booklet, the human ear is a remarkable receptor, and recalibrates very quickly to optimize the quality of what it is picking up.

Covered in the box, of course, is the historic concert the Ellington band made at the Crystal Ballroom, Fargo, North Dakota on November 7, 1940. Thanks to two Ellington fans and amateur recording engineers, Jack Towers and Dick Burris, the entire Dakota performance was recorded (save for a few drop-outs occasioned when changing the shellac disc on the pair's single-turntable cutter), providing a comprehensive record of the band during a five-set evening's work. The sound, which over the years has been refined several times by Towers, is outstanding throughout the two-and-a-half hours of the Fargo concert, which make up the entirety of discs two and three.

Johnny Hodges

Storyville Masters Of Jazz: Johnny Hodges

Storyville Records


Johnny Hodges' exquisite sound—"so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to my eyes," said Ellington—is foregrounded on this 19-track anthology, spanning the 20 years from 1943-64.

The first two tracks feature Hodges with the Ellington orchestra; track two, "Passion Flower," written by Strayhorn for Hodges, has the composer at the piano in place of Ellington. Most of the others, all made by smaller groups, include Ellingtonians in their lineups. An unexpected twist is a 1954 recording of Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone," featuring John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, alongside Ellingtonians trumpeter Shorty Baker and trombonist Lawrence Brown.

The disc closes with a wonderful octet recording of Ellington's "Dooji Wooji," featuring Ellingtonians trumpeter Cat Anderson, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, clarinetist Russell Procope and drummer Sam Woodyard, and also including the British-born pianist Victor Feldman.

As with The Duke Box, most of the tracks here are taken from live recordings, but the sound, as with the box, is consistently better than average. There are many fine Hodges samplers around, and this is one of them.

Other artists featured in the Storyville Masters Of Jazz series include pianists Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines, saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Sidney Bechet, violinist Stuff Smith and singer Billie Holiday.

Various Artists

The Blues Box

Storyville Records


With The Blues Box, we come full circle on this small selection of discs from Storyville's vast catalogue: for the blues, of course, were fundamental to European revivalism, stemming from blues retentions in the original New Orleans-style material which inspired the movement. The blues in their own right also drove two members in particular of the Ken Colyer band which inaugurated Storyville's recording program: trombonist Chris Barber and guitarist, banjoist and singer Lonnie Donegan.

The seven CDs in the box feature a variety of urban and country blues artists recorded in Copenhagen from 1956-77, mostly in the 1960s. The roster includes pianists/vocalists Otis Spann, Speckled Red, Sunnyland Slim Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Sippie Wallace, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Eddie Boyd and Jay McShann; guitarists/vocalists Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Pete Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, John Henry Barbee and Brownie McGhee; and harmonica players/vocalists Sonny Boy Williamson II and Sonny Terry. A companion DVD features performances from Dupree, Williamson, guitarist/vocalist Robert Lockwood Jr and pianists/vocalists James Carroll Booker 111, Henry Gray and Cousin Joe, among others.

By the time these recordings were made most of the musicians were in their 60s—in 2010, still old by the standards prevailing in the blues world, and at the time the recordings were made, older still. But like good wine, blues musicians improve with age, acquiring a gravitas befitting the wrenched-from-real life subject matter of their songs. The Blues Box does its veteran artists proud and is an invaluable historical resource. The large format, 40 page booklet includes authoritative biographies of all the artists by Chris Albertson, adding to the box's substance.

Tracks and Personnel

Dig Ben!

Tracks: CD1: Johnny Come Lately; Perdido; Autumn Leaves; Old Folks; Mack The Knife; Sunday; Come Sunday; Our Love Is Here To Stay; The Theme. CD2: On Green Dolphin Street; Bye, Bye Blackbird; Lover Come Back To Me; Wee Dot; Tenderly; Sometimes I'm Happy; Embraceable You; The Theme; Sophisticated Lady; Stridin' With Ben; All The Things You Are; I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me; I Got It Bad; Our Blues. CD3: Danny Boy; Intro Ronnie Scott; Blues In B Flat; Star Dust; Gone With The Wind; The Theme; Confirmation; Poutin'; A Night In Tunisia; Over The Rainbow; How High The Moon; Willow Weep For Me; Perdido; CD4: Pennies From Heaven; Blues In B Flat; In A Mellotone; Sunday; Cotton Tail; Gone With The Wind; Cotton Tail; My Romance; Cotton Tail; In A Mellotone; How Long Has This Been Going On?. CD5: The "C" Jam Blues; My Romance; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Avalon; Chelsea Bridge; Danny Boy; How High The Moon; How Long Has This Been Going On?; B-Flat Blues; Medley: How Long Has This Been Going On?/Sophisticated Lady; In A Mellotone; For Heavens Sake. CD6: The "C" Jam Blues; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; The Theme; Old Folks; Satin Doll; Things Ain't What They Used To Be; I've Got Rhythm; Satin Doll; Indiana. CD7: Things Ain't What They Used To Be; Cotton Tail; Greensleeves; Rockin' In Rhythm; Stompy Jones; Cry Me A River; Bojangles; Perdido; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Ain't Misbehavin'; Mop Mop; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Perdido. CD8: Did You Call Her Today (takes 1-8); Baby It's Cold Outside (takes 1-5); Cottontail; Old Folks (takes 1-5); Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone; The Song Is Ended; Poutin' (take 1-9); Randle's Island (takes 10-12).

Personnel: Ben Webster: tenor saxophone, piano (CD2# 9-12); various personnel.

The Brute And The Beautiful

Tracks: CD1: In A Mellotone; In A Mellotone; Blues in Bb; Cottontail; Nasty Attitude; Dancing On the Ceiling; Indiana; The Man I Love; Sometimes I'm Happy; Things Ain't What They Used To Be; Sweet Georgia Brown; Better Go; The Theme. CD2: Stardust; My Romance; Over the Rainbow; Old Folks; Come Sunday; Bye Bye Blackbird; Tenderly; Embraceable You; Ad Lib Blues; Sophisticated Lady; Danny Boy; Goin' Home; You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To; The Theme.

Personnel: Ben Webster: tenor saxophone; various personnel.

At Montmartre 1965/66

Tracks: Pennies From Heaven; Blues In B Flat; My Romance; In A Mellotone; How Long Has This Been Going On?; Sunday; Someone To Watch Over Me; Cottontail; Danny Boy; Gone With The Wind; Cottontail; My Romance.

Personnel: Ben Webster: tenor saxophone; Kenny Drew: piano (1-9); Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen: bass; Alex Riel: drums (1-9); Atli Bjorn: piano (10-12); Rune Carlsson: drums (10-12).

The Duke Box



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