DUKE ELLINGTON: THE BLANTON-WEBSTER BAND
RCA Bluebird 5659-1-RB
FIRST TIME! THE COUNT MEETS THE DUKE
Duke Ellington Orchestra/Count Basie Orchestra
Columbia Jazz Masterpieces
Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach
Blue Note BT 85129
Few American popular musicians were quite as honored and lionized in their lifetime as Duke Ellington. The great composer and bandleader (“jazz musician” seems too limited a term for him) accepted the honors with the wit and nonchalance that characterized his musical regime. Collecting a presidential medal from Richard Nixon, he bussed Nixon four times; when the nonplussed president inquired about the quartet of kisses, Duke shyly replied, “One for each cheek.”
It’s typical that in spite of the glory heaped at his feet and the laurels gathered at his brow, Ellington should be woefully underrepresented in current American record catalogues. The late Ralph J. Gleason’s 1975 book Celebrating the Duke lists close to 30 albums in its discography, of which only a handful are still in print. Most, like MCA’s three collections of Ellington’s first Decca sides and CBS’s reissues of his ambitious suites, are indifferently stocked even by deep-catalogue stores, and the quality of budget pressings like MCA’s is often mediocre. A glance through an Ellington bin at most shops will often turn up more collector’s label transcriptions than legitimate major-label releases.
However, it is apparently dawning on American record companies that Ellington’s music demands restoration. Three U.S. companies have recently brought significant titles back into print. The most ambitious reissue is RCA Bluebird’s four-record collection The Blanton-Webster Band, which collates 66 numbers cut by Ellington’s great group of 1940-42. Blue Note has reissued Money Jungle, the fabled 1962 trio date with bassist Charlie Mingus and drummer Max Roach originally released by United Artists. Finally, Columbia, in the first issue of its Jazz Masterpieces line, has brought back First Time! The Count Meets the Duke, a 1961 showdown between the Ellington and Count Basie bands, in digitally remastered form.
A useful supplement to these domestic packages is Rockin’ in Rhythm, an 18-song compilation of Ellington’s early Decca sides, licensed by Charly Records’ jazz line Affinity. I find the English label’s generous sampling of primitive Duke generally superior to the raunch-sounding MCA cheapies, well as a useful primer on the development of Duke’s first music.
In his fine general history The Making of Jazz, James Lincoln Collier notes that Ellington’s first training was not as a musician, but as a painter. This historical point should not be underestimated. I can’t think of another American musician whose music contains so many painterly touches, or whose sound conjures such a sense of color. It’s not for nothing that Ellington is often referred to by critics as an “impressionist”: comparisons to Renoir’s warmth and richness are thoroughly appropriate, despite the different media.
Ellington’s palette consisted of his musicians. Although his lineup changed considerably over 50 years of music-making, his use of the lineup remained strikingly consistent. He sought players with individualistic voices: trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, trombonist “Tricky Sam” Nanton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, altoist Johnny Hodges, tenorist Ben Webster, bassist Jimmy Blanton. Each man’s distinctive style — the growls of the trumpeters and Nanton, the swoops of Bigard, the lushness of Hodges, the rasping velocity of Webster, the throaty facility of Blanton — was marshaled to supply shading to Ellington’s frequently programmatic musical canvases. Even late in his career, the approach didn’t vary: on Money Jungle he utilizes his two facile accompanists as a sketch artist would charcoals.
Ellington’s painterly sensibillties flourished slowly; as Collier points out, Duke was something of a late bloomer artistically, with the greatest flowering of his talents coming when he was in his early 40s. The tracks on Rockin’ in Rhythm show Ellington just arrived in New York, groping his way through the “hot” conventions of the day toward his own style.
The period covered in the Affinity set (1926-1931) was the era of the Ellington band’s residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club. The gig required the group to supply not only dance numbers but also programmatic backgrounds for the club’s opulent floor shows. The resulting music is heavy on velocity and flash, but also shows glimpses of Ellington working out his nascent compositional style. Some pieces, like “The Mooche,” emphasize shouting horns and exotic brass and reed cross-voicings, which were a hallmark of what became known as Ellington’s “jungle” style. Other tracks, most notably “Mood Indigo,” demonstrate Duke’s growing experimentation with harmonic coloring; the number’s three-part theme statement by Bigard, Nanton, and trumpeter Arthur Whetsol is a harbinger of the grand-scale intentions of the 40s Ellington Band.
That band, usually cited as Ellington’s greatest and most revolutionary, is heard in all its splendor on The Blanton-Webster Band. Giving top billing to the bassist and tenorist may be unjust in this case, for few jazz orchestras ever displayed such talent on a man-for-man basis. Hodges, Bigard, Nanton, and Williams all make spectacular contributions as soloists and ensemble players, as do cornetist Rex Stewart, trombonist Juan Tizol, baritonist Harry Carney, and trumpeter-violinist Ray Nance. This was also the era when composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn began his long association with Ellington, leaving his deep mark on the band’s lush orchestrations.
The embarrassment of riches on the RCA set defies complete summarization. The eight sides give up many memorable programmatic selections: “Ko-Ko,” “Jack the Bear,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Bojangles,” “A Portrait of Bert Williams,” “Raincheck,” and the Ellington signature “Take the ‘A’ Train.” All are noteworthy for the extreme sophistication of their harmonies and the sublime way in which brass, reeds, and rhythm are arranged to conjure mood and character. There are memorable showpieces for individual band members, like “Concerto for Cootie,” the Williams tour de force that became even better known as “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”; “Cottontail,” an epic for Webster; and “Warm Valley,” one of many Hodges showstoppers. Ivy Anderson shines as an understated blues vocalist on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and “Rocks in My Bed,” only two of several compositions that show Ellington’s facility as a writer of blues and pop songs. But even when the material is merely riff-derived settings for solo blowing, one experiences the power and versatility of a virtuoso band playing at its peak.
Compared to these RCA sides, Money Jungle and First Time! are relatively minor Ellington, but they do show that he attacked his music vigorously even into his 60s.
The more adventurous of the two albums is Money Jungle. Ellington’s fellows in this trio are particularly fine matches: Mingus styled his rolling, explosive bands of the 50s and 60s along Ellingtonian lines, and Roach’s busy, colorful playing is worth an entire percussion section.
Ellington gives both his dissonant and romantic tendencies full reign on this album. The title track is a gale-force exposition of the rhythmic and melodic skews heard in passing on the large-band tracks of the 40s (check the unconventional chording that Duke employs on his “Ko-Ko” accompaniment). At the same time, such introspective compositions as “Warm Valley” and “Solitude” are given respectful readings. This Blue Note reissue also contains four new Ellington compositions uncovered when the original tapes were being digitally remastered. All are blues; the most interesting is “Backward Country Boy Blues,” a 12-bar excursion whose conventional construction is effectively disguised by artful chord substitution.
First Time!, the Ellington-Basie record, is an intramural romp by the two swing pioneers, and if the majority of the numbers (which include “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Basie’s signature “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”) are largely vehicles for solo blowing, the bands still manage to stir up their share of dust. The album contains one stunner, the aptly titled “Battle Royal,” which builds from a rhythm exposition to a forceful climax of eruptive sustained chords. It’s a shingle-rattler worth the (budget) price of admission.
Thankfully, the Ellington renaissance on record shows no signs of ending. Steve Backer of RCA Bluebird says that this June will see a CD-only reissue of Ellington ‘s lovely 1967 tribute to Billy Strayhorn, . . . And His Mother Called Him Bill, with newly discovered tracks added. The reactivated Impulse! label has brought back Ellington’s encounter with Coleman Hawkins, recently available only as part of a twofer package, in digitally remastered form; Duke’s collaboration with John Coltrane will likely follow. Hopefully Columbia’s new Jazz Masterpieces will incorporate such works as Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown, and Beige in remastered form. Duke Ellington’s greatest monuments are his compositions; they deserve reinstallation.