As we continue with the Arranging Ellington project, one thing I'd really like to encourage is for everyone to fully immerse themselves in the world of Duke Ellington. As I mentioned in my welcome video, I think Ellington is among the most misunderstood figures in jazz, and I think that much of that misunderstanding stems from a lack of familiarity. Despite his tremendous fame and influence, sometimes it can feel like Duke Ellington exists in a parallel, self-contained musical universe, a universe that is related to but separate from the rest of the jazz tradition. (That's not my own view, but I understand where it comes from.)
For those who are somewhat new to Duke's music, his recorded output is so vast that it can be difficult to know where to begin. To that end, I'd like to offer some guidance about how you might launch your explorations. And if some (or all) of the albums listed below are unexplored territory for you, I envy you — you are about to have the pure visceral thrill of experiencing this amazing music for the first time!
[An aside: I do recommend acquiring the CD (or LP, if you are the turntable type) versions wherever possible. I know that probably feels hopelessly old-school to some of you! But the physical discs contain essential liner notes and discographical information that is not included with digital music files. Also, some of these recordings are out of print and are therefore only available on used CDs or LPs.]
THE SACRED CONCERTS & BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE
Concert of Sacred Music (RCA)
Second Sacred Concert (Prestige)
Since you'll be arranging music drawn from Ellington's concerts of sacred music, you'll obviously want to hear the full context in which "Come Sunday" and "Almighty God" appear. I'll have much more to say about Duke's sacred music in subsequent posts, but for now suffice it to say that the above two albums are essential listening.
This is actually a recording of the world premiere of the first Concert of Sacred Music in San Fransisco. Some of the material here was revised prior to the official RCA release (recorded live at New York's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church) and it's very interesting to compare the two versions.
Carnegie Hall Concert, January 1943 (Prestige)
The premiere and only complete recording of Ellington's longest and most ambitious work, Black, Brown and Beige, which he intended as "a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America." This piece is the original source of "Come Sunday," which figures prominently in the first movement, "Black."
Black, Brown and Beige (Columbia)
The title is a misnomer — only "Black" (in a revised version) is included in this studio recording. However, this is the first vocal rendition of "Come Sunday," featuring the legendary gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson. This is the recording that made "Come Sunday" famous as a modern-day spiritual and anthem of the civil rights movement.
The Best of Early Ellington (Decca)
A very well-selected compilation of highlights from the 1926-1931 period, including early masterpieces like "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," "Black And Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and, of course, "Mood Indigo." The set closes with "Creole Rhapsody," Duke's first extended work — it took up both sides of a 78 rpm disc (Part 1 on on Side A and Part 2 on Side B).
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, 1935-36 (Classics)
Important document of Ellington in the mid-1930's, including his memorial for his departed mother, "Reminiscing in Tempo," a harmonically and formally fascinating extended work that took up an unprescedented four 78 rpm sides. It also includes "In A Sentimental Mood," one of Duke's best and best-known ballads, and an evocative feature for trumpeter Cootie Williams, "Echoes of Harlem."
ELLINGTON IN THE FORTIES
Considered by many to be the best band Duke ever had, the group was obviously energized by the addition of star tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and the phenomenal 21-year old bassist Jimmie Blanton. This era also featured the beginning of composer Billy Strayhorn's lifelong association with the Ellington orchestra. Strayhorn's musical mind was every bit as remarkable as Duke's and their individual styles complimented each other perfectly. This set includes legendary masterpieces like Ellington's "Ko-Ko," "Jack The Bear," "Concerto for Cootie," and "Harlem Air Shaft," Ben Webster's signature tour-de-force "Cotton Tail," and Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," "Raincheck," "Johnny Come Lately," his highly impressionistic arrangement of "Flamingo," and, of course, the original and best version of "Take The 'A' Train."
At Fargo (Storyville)
The Blanton-Webster band playing live for dancers on November 7, 1940, recorded live on a portable disc cutter by a pair of young Ellington aficionados. This is surely drummer Sonny Greer's finest hour, and he drives the band with a broad, powerful beat that was never really captured on the studio recordings. The live versions of Blanton-Webster band classics like "Ko Ko" and "Cotton Tail" are totally burning, but even the lesser-known numbers like "Chatterbox" swing like all hell. Another unmissable highlight is Ben Webster's showstopping turn on "Star Dust," a direct response to his hero Coleman Hawkins' celebrated recording of "Body and Soul." [N.B. In this case, the CD version does not come with any liner notes at all, so there's no need to bother with the physical discs. You can download Annie Kuebler's helpful notes here.]
ELLINGTON IN THE FIFTIES
Such Sweet Thunder (RCA)
There are so many great records from this period it's painfully difficult to narrow it down, but this is the album I return to the most. The most successful of the many suites Ellington and Strayhorn collaborated on, it presents vividly inventive musical portraits of various Shakespearean characters, including Puck, Henry V, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet. The monomaniacal coda to the Prince of Denmark's feature, "Madness in Great Ones" is Ellingtonian surrealism at its finest. And the title track will swing you into bad health.
Ellington Uptown (Columbia)
A highly enjoyable 1951 set that includes updated arrangements of warhorses like "The Mooche," "Take The 'A' Train," and "Perdido," but also debuts "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" (one of Ellington's most successful extended works), The Liberian Suite, and a bombastic setpiece for drummer Louie Bellson, "Skin Deep."
At Newport 1956 (Complete) (Columbia)
Still Duke's best-selling record, this album is remembered predominantly for one thing: tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' incendiary extended solo (27 choruses of blues) on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" — but let's also give a shout-out to bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard for supporting Gonsalves with an unstoppably hard-swinging beat. A blonde girl in a black dress kicks off the dancing around chorus number seven, others rapidly join in, and in no short order the audience has completely lost it, screaming and hollering at the top of their lungs. Newport Festival director George Wein was terrified a riot would break out, but Duke calmed the raucous crowd with "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" featuring Johnny Hodges. This concert revitalized Duke's then-flagging career; he would later quip "I was born at Newport in 1956."
ELLINGTON IN THE SIXTIES
The Far East Suite (RCA)
Written following a 1963 State Department-sponsored tour that took the Ellington orchestra to India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, the musical exoticism is gloriously inauthentic but tremendously satisfying. Featuring one of Billy Strayhorn's best and most-loved ballads, "Isfahan," Duke's epic long-form blues deconstruction "Ad Lib on Nippon," and some of the most muscular and inventive rhythm section playing on any Ellington record, courtesy of forward-thinking youngsters John Lamb on bass and Rufus Jones on drums.
Recorded in tribute to Billy Strayhorn, just three months following his death from esophageal cancer, this musical portrait includes both vintage Strayhorn works like "Raincheck," and "Blood Count," Strays' final, heartrending ballad feature for Johnny Hodges. ("He wrote his epitaph and then had Rabbit play it" was how Hodges' section mate Otto Hardwick put it.) Billy Strayhorn's relationship with Ellington was complex and fraught — he spent his entire career in the Duke's shadow, knowing that as an openly gay man in a highly prejudiced world, stepping into the spotlight himself would be highly inadvisable. Despite his brilliant output as a composer and arranger, Strayhorn was never properly recognized for his genius during his lifetime. This heartfelt musical elegy gives the man his due.
The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic)
An outstanding live set from 1963 that opens with a scorching version of "Kinda Dukish/Rockin' In Rhythm" and features a great selection of material drawn from every stage of the band's 40-year history. "Suite Thursday" (inspired by the John Steinbeck novel) is a highlight, as is the Clark Terry-Jimmy Hamilton-penned boppish line that opens "Perdido," here given new life by a stelar arrangement from the great West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson.
ELLINGTON IN THE SEVENTIES
New Orleans Suite (Atlantic)
The final recording of one of the greatest alto saxophonists of all time, an essential component of the Ellington Effect since 1928: Johnny Hodges. Tragically, Hodges appears on only half of the selections here. Two days prior to the second recording session, where he was to have recorded "Portrait of Sidney Bechet," Hodges died of a heart attack at age 63. But the down-and-dirty album opener "Blues For New Orleans" (also featuring the organist Wild Bill Davis) is a fitting swan song. Here, Duke also pays tribute to native New Orleanians Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and his original bassist, Wellman Braud. Norris Turney's flute also features prominently — the first time Ellington had ever used the instrument in his band.
Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy)
A seriously under-rated item in the Ellington discography, this record opens with a classic instance of Ellingtonian tongue-in-cheek wit ("In this particular segment, ladies and gentlemen, we have adjusted our perspective to that of the kangaroo and the didjeridoo…" ) before launching into the take-no-prisoners groove of "Chinoiserie," which has lost none of its freshness in the intervening years. An authentically (if bizarrely) funky record — props once again to Rufus Jones, surely the only drummer to have played with both Duke Ellington and James Brown.
ELLINGTON THE PIANIST
Money Jungle (Blue Note)
A 1962 session pairing Duke with one of his greatest disciples, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer and bebop apostle Max Roach, this strange, beautiful album is all the proof you'd need that even if he'd never assembled his signature orchestra, Duke Ellington would still be remembered as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. The haunting mood piece "Fleurette Africaine" is a stone classic.
Piano in the Foreground (Columbia)
Recorded a year prior to Money Jungle, with Duke's regular rhythm section of Aaron Bell (bass) and Sam Woodyard (drums). It's if anything even more radical, most especially the utter deconstruction of Gershwin's "Summertime." That track makes a fantastic blindfold test — anyone not already familiar with this recording who correctly guesses it's Duke Ellington at the piano deserves some manner of prize!
On a personal note: my parents were not jazz fans, but one album they happened to own (on cassette!) was First Time! The Count Meets The Duke, which I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon at a young age. I remember being immediately taken by the rollercoaster momentum and the intense back-and-forth between the two bands and their signature soloists on "Battle Royal." I will always have a soft spot for First Time! — it's not an essential recording by any means, but there are definitely worse places to start!
What's the first Ellington recording you connected with? What are some of your enduring favorites? How would you rate the recordings I listed above? If any of these albums are new to you, what are your first impressions of them? What other Ellington albums do you consider essential?
I'd love to hear from you all — please chime in in the comments!