An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Thursday, February 13, 2020
Music: Current count 32759  rated (+47), 241  unrated (+11).
Shortly after closing my last Music Week, I looked at the featured jazz records on Napster and noticed two volumes from Duke Ellington's Private Collection series. These appeared on Saja in 10 CDs from 1987-89, and I had picked up a few when I found them used. I figured I should play the ones I had missed, and that got me looking at Napster's Ellingtons. I had probably heard more records by Ellington than any other artist, but that still left a fair number unheard -- especially among the 44 Chronological Classics volumes. As most of the latter were available, I started working my way through the list, especially the stretch from 1931-39, which Ellington's American labels have failed to keep in print. That took me past my usual Monday deadline. I decided then to hold back until I hit 1940, because I planned on writing a general introduction to the series followed by notes and grades on each individual volume (as I had with Private Collection.
Chronlogical Classics goes on to 1953, but I figured they were less critical. That's not a judgment on the music, but because nearly all of them were in print and graded elsewhere: see, especially, the magnificent Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, which covers 1940-42, The Indispensible Duke Ellington and the Small Groups (1940-46), and the slightly lesser Black, Brown and Beige (1944-1946). I picked up a few more titles along the way, plus a couple of records by others which showed up in the Ellington title search.
There are more I haven't gotten to. The big live chunks left are the Carnegie Hall Concerts from 1943-48 and The Treasury Shows from 1945-46 (25 volumes). There is also a fair amount of live Ellington floating around, especially from the 1960s -- Pablo picked up some of those, but we're still seeing occasional concerts pop up on European labels. I won't venture to say how much of this anyone actually needs, but aside from some redundancy, the A and A+ records listed above are really choice records. Nothing (other than the Armstrong-Ellington Summit, which matches a previous A graded package) in this week's many finds matches them, although the 1928-30 Chronological Classics overlap with some of my previous picks (especially the 3-CD Early Ellington on Decca), 1938 Vol. 3 has some of the small group recording from The Great Ellington Units, and Up in Duke's Workshop sounds like a first draft of Latin American Suite. On the other hand, I ran through the Chronological Classics very fast (almost always just one play), and aside from the usual caveats about surface noise and sequencing they all sounded pretty great to me.
Quite a bit of unpacking this week-plus, which came as a surprise to me after a few lean weeks. I've let the 2020 releases pile up while working on 2019, and barely touched them this week. But the Ellington orgy did break me out of the rut of searching around for 2019 stragglers. Also went the whole week without touching the 2019 EOY Aggregate. So I guess I'm moving on. Still expect to pick up a few more Ellington titles next week (playing The Great Paris Concert right now, and it's sounding pretty great, indeed). My new year resolution is to take 2020 easier. So far that's mostly involved starting each day off with a piece of classic old jazz. I had, in fact, been playing Early Ellington in the week before this kicked off, along with Ben Webster's Cottontail, an ASV best-of named for his 1935 hit with Ellington.
A final personal note: I just heard today that my cousin Chloe McCandlis died, at 94. She and her husband Paul moved from Arkansas to Snohomish, WA before I was born, so I probably only saw her a half-dozen times over the years. I don't remember the family's first trip to Washington, but we returned for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, which was the high point of my life well past that point. I visited again, on my own, in 1984, and it totally changed my view of my family -- for one thing, despite the distance, she probably knew my mother better than any of my closer relatives (or maybe she was just more open about it). I saw her a couple years ago. Despite numerous physical ailments, she was in a very expansive mood, with lots of stories about long ago. She no doubt knew many more, and I could kick myself for not making more of an effort to keep close. That memory is lost now. The inspiration remains.
New records reviewed this week:
Carol Albert: Stronger Now (2019 , Cahara): Pianist, sings some, ranges from luxe piano to easy listening pap. B-
Lila Ammons: Genealogy (2019 , Lila Ammons Music): Jazz singer, granddaughter of boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, niece of saxophonist Gene Ammons. Songs here are mostly by jazz composers (Silver, Monk, Ellington. B+(**) [cd]
Ellen Edwards: A New York Session (2019 , Stonefire Music, EP): Singer-songwriter from Alabama, has a couple previous CDs, this one just five tracks, 20:20. Jazz band, best known are Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Jason Miles (B3, vibes, and synthesizers), none remarkable. B- [cd] [02-22]
Delfeayo Marsalis Uptown Jazz Orchestra: Jazz Party (2019 , Troubadour Jass): The trombone player in the New Orlean family's band, tenth album since 1992, second with this big band, where everything's a jazz party. B+(**)
The Westerlies: Wherein Lies the Good (2018 , Westerlies): New York-based brass quartet, two each trumpets and trombones, all originally from Seattle, first appeared on an album with Wayne Horvitz, have another album I haven't heard. Beyond the 14:37 title piece (by Robin Holcomb), many short bits, some trad, some filtered through the Golden Gate Quartet or Charles Ives. B+(***)
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Ronnie Lane: Just for a Moment: The Best of Ronnie Lane (1973-97 , UMC): Started out in Small Faces, solo career never as famous as his bandmates although One for the Road (1976) was one of my favorite albums ever. This sampler was culled from a completist 6-CD box and favors breadth over depth, finding some gems but most seem minor compared to the two songs from his masterpiece. B+(***)
Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Summit: The Master Takes (1961 , Roulette): I've long owned the 1990 CD of The Complete Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington Sessions, so never bothered with this package: a new title with the same 17 cuts. Ellington plays piano, and wrote (or co-wrote) all the songs, Armstrong plays trumpet and sings, and brought the band: Trummy Young (trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Mort Herbert (bass), Danny Barcelona (drums) -- Bigard played with Ellington before joining Armstrong's All-Stars, and really stands out here. Armstrong amazes with his ability to slide his voice around such sophisticated melodies. A
Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn: Great Times! Piano Duets (1950 , Riverside/OJC): The original eight tracks (25:30), with two pianos and bass, were released as a 10-inch LP in 1950. The CD adds two more tracks with Strayhorn switching to celesta, and two trio cuts with Ellington, Oscar Pettiford (cello), and Jo Jones (drums). B+(*)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: A Drum Is a Woman (1956 , Columbia): Billy Strayhorn co-wrote this attempted opera, where the book doesn't fit the music, and the music doesn't fit all that neatly together either. B-
Duke Ellington: At the Alhambra: Recorded in Paris, 1958 (1958 , Pablo): After Noran Granz sold his Verve label interests to megacorp Universal, he started Pablo in 1973, recruiting many of his old favorites, starting with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. His third released was one of Ellington's last, Duke's Big 4. Later Pablo picked up several live tapes, including this one. This is basically the band he took to Newport in 1956, starting with "Take the 'A' Train," running through a medley of oldies, sliding into "Jeep's Blues," and widing up with an only slightly less rousing "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Featuring Paul Gonsalves (1962 , Fantasy/OJC): Gonsalves, from Massachusetts, parents Cape Verdean, played tenor sax in the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie big bands before replacing Ben Webster in Ellington's orchestra in 1950. He emerged as a star with his astonishing 27-chorus solo in 1956 at Newport, and remained with the band until he died in 1974, a few days before Ellington's death. This was a free-wheeling blowing session, eight group standards starting with "C-Jam Blues," not necessarily designed to feature tenor sax but in the free-for-all Gonsalves often winds up on top. Sat in the vaults until 1985, when someone realized it filled a niche -- or just wanted a reminder of how hard Ellington could swing. A-
Duke Ellington: The Duke: The Essential Collection: 1927-1962 (1927-62 , Columbia/Legacy, 3CD): Released as a tall box in 1999 on the occasional of his centennial, with the more accurate title The Columbia Years, given more sensible packaging here. The discs break up into three discontinuous stretches: 1927-40, 1947-52, and 1956-62. Ellington always kept several labels going, although RCA seemed to get the best eras -- the best takes from 1927-30 (although the Deccas are nearly as good, the Okehs sampled here and available on a 2-CD set, The Okeh Ellington, coming in third); The Blanton-Webster Band of 1939-42 and the "small groups" of the same period; late masterpieces like The Far East Suite (1966) and And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967) -- but Columbia's two stretches in the 1950s includes a few supreme records: Uptown (1947-52), At Newport (1956), Blues in Orbit (1958-59). Columbia also seems to have control of much of Ellington's neglected 1930s work, but has kept them out of print (except for European bootlegs, Mosaic's 11-CD 2010 box, and rare samples on Columbia anthologies like this one). The main value here is a first disc that starts to show off this long-neglected oeuvre. The later discs are full of gems, but a same size RCA compilation would blow them all away. A-
Duke Ellington: In the Uncommon Market (1963 , Pablo): From one of the band's European tours, scant details on where or when. The band tracks have some terrific moments, especially Paul Gonsalves in "E.S.P." Ends wtih some rather funky piano trio. B+(***)
Duke Ellington: Soul Call (1966 , Verve): A live set from Juan-Les-Pins in France, originally released in 1967 (5 tracks, 37:50), expanded to 14 tracks (74:44) for the Verve Master Edition reissue. The original album, still up front, picked out the new music, with two 12-14-minute pieces ("La Plus Belle Africaine" and "Skip Deep"). The extras recycle the songbook. B+(**)
Duke Ellington/Boston Pops/Arthur Fiedler: The Duke at Tanglewood (1966, RCA Victor Red Seal): In the late 1940s, Ellington started writing longer works ("suites"), and started to gain acclaim as America's greatest composer, as jazz started to be touted as "America's classical music." So it was inevitable that some classical music orchestra would invite Ellington to sit in on a program of his tunes fleshed out with strings and tympani. And you could probably have guessed it would be the Pops, their live concert appearing on RCA's classical music imprint. I'm surprised it works so well, but in retrospect that, too, seems inevitable. B+(**)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: The Popular Duke Ellington (1966 , RCA Victor): Ten old songs (1927-1944), most recorded hundreds (or even thousands) of times (I think I once decided that "Mood Indigo" was the most covered popular song ever), plus one ("The Twitch" that seems to have originated here. One generally frowns on re-recording your old hits, but the march of technology and the evolution of the band make this an exception. A-
Duke Ellington: Solos, Duets and Trios (1932-67 , RCA Bluebird): Isolated solos both early and late, but most come from the 1940s, centering on a batch of 1940 duets with ill-fated bassist Ray Blanton (9 takes of 4 songs). Duke's a pretty good stride pianist, but this is a mixed bag. Still, the Blanton tracks are pretty amazing. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Berlin '65/Paris '67 (1965-67 , Pablo): Previously unreleased concert performances, released as part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic series. Several marvelous pieces from The Far East Suite, as well as old standards. B+(***)
Duke Ellington: 1969 All-Star White House Tribute to Duke Ellington (1969 , Blue Note): Sixteen names on the cover, but Ellington was not only the subject here; he was listed first among the contributors. My contempt for Richard Nixon is almost boundless, but he played a little piano, and must have been overjoyed to be able to sit down and tinkle the ivories alongside the Duke. The occasion was Ellington's 70th birthday, and Nixon's gift was a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The West Wing party rolled on to 3 AM, the long list of names contributing (although I don't have song-by-song credits) -- a few Ellington alumni like Clark Terry and Louis Bellson (but not the Orchestra), plus stars like Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, JJ Johnson, Hank Jones, Jim Hall, and Joe Williams. B+(***)
Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert (1969 , Blue Note, 2CD): Actually two concerts from a tour in the UK, about seven months after his 70th birthday (Nov. 25-26 vs. Apr. 29), originally released in 1970 by Solid State in the US and United Artists elsewhere. Still loving you madly. B+(***)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: Up in Duke's Workshop (1969-72 , Pablo/OJC): Nine tracks from nine dates, with groups ranging from 5 to 12 musicians, first released by Pablo in 1979. No titles I recognize here, but the melodies remind me of his last wave of great albums. Wild Bill Davis on organ is a special treat. A-
Duke Ellington: Duke's Big 4 (1973 , Pablo): One of his last albums, the first actually released by Norman Granz's Pablo (which later picked up a fair amount of archive material). Quartet with Joe Pass (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Louie Bellson (drums). Kind of lightweight, but Pass always liked it airy. B+(**)
Duke Ellington: The Private Collection (1956-72 , Saja, 10CD): Previously unreleased tapes from the family vault, some live, most studio, released by LMR or its successor Saja 1987-89, and later reissued by Kaz. I picked up several of the Saja discs back in the day, graded them as follows, and jumped at the opportunity to hear more on Napster:
Duke Ellington: The Private Collection, Volume Two: Dance Concerts, California, 1958 (1958 , Saja): Ellington responded to the eclipse of the big band era by trying his hand at fancier things (suites and such), but still played the occasional dance hall, trotting out his hits, and they're having a good time here. Ozzie Bailey sings a couple, and they're just fine. A-
Duke Ellington: The Private Collection, Volume Six: Dance Dates, California, 1958 (1958 , Saja): The brassy dance numbers from the start don't seem like anything special, but they get a lot more interesting at/after the break, when they slow it down (e.g., "Mood Indigo"). B+(***)
Duke Ellington: The Private Collection, Volume Seven: Studio Sessions, 1957 & 1962 (1957-62 , Saja): The big band is in fine form here, especially on their classics, most notably a rousing new "Cottontail." B+(***)
Duke Ellington: The Private Collection, Volume Eight: Studio Sessions, 1957, 1965, 1966, 1967, San Francisco, Chicago, New York (1957-67 , Saja): B+(**)
Duke Ellington: The Chronological Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (1924-1953, Classics): A French label which has been picking off American jazz titles as they clear Europe's 50-year copyright law -- although they slowed down after 2000, and haven't released anything since 2008. They've usually digitized well-worn copies, so the sound often leaves much to be desired. Napster lists some of these titles as Reborn Records, using modified artwork. One presumes they've undergone further noise reduction, but I can't say definitively. For Ellington, these start with 1924-1927 and extend to 1953 (44 CDs). I've previously heard and rated:
I hoped to catch up everything to 1940, but couldn't find 1924-1927 (Classics 539), 1935-1936 (659), 1938-1939 (747), or 1939 Vol. 2 (780). I tried to get by with a single play per CD, which made it hard to make fine distinctions -- not that there were many to make. Most critics consider 1927-1930 and 1940-1942 to be golden periods, and they're certainly peaks, but there are no slough periods. The main complaints I had were surface noise and the arbitrariness of the chronological sequencing, with small groups and backup jobs for vocal groups thrown into the mix. From 1940 on, the Classics series is less useful, as Ellington's studio recordings have been kept reliably in print by RCA (in two 3-CD sets) and later labels. Perhaps I'll check out those compilations later, but for now 1940 seemed like a good cut-off point.
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1927-1928 (1927-28 , Classics): This is where Ellington hits his stride, coining such classics as "East St. Louis Toodoe-Oo" and "Jubilee Stomp." The only downsides are redundancy and surface noise -- endemic to this whole series. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1928 (1928 , Classics): With Johnny Hodges, he's really developing a consistent sound, despite billing various groups, like Lonnie Johnson's Harlem Footwarmers. Obviously, the big one here is "The Mooche," with four takes. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1928-1929 (1928-29 , Classics): A prime period, with Bubber Miley on trumpet and Barney Bigard or Johnny Hodges on clarinet, everything bright and cheery, from "Tiger Rag" to "Flaming Youth" to "Diga Diga Doo," even "Rent Party Blues." A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1929 (1929 , Classics): A hot band starting to swing, still on their jungle thing, the one disturbing thing is "A Nite at the Cotton Club," where the announcer insists on calling him "Dukey." B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1929-1930 (1929-30 , Classics): Sixth volume, starts with "Jungle Jamboree," with three later songs attributed to The Jungle Band, nine more to Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra. Dancefloor singles, close to 3:00 each, many terrific, sound so-so. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1930 (1930 , Classics): While Bubber Miley defined Ellington's 1927-29 band, he is hardly missed here, with Cootie Williams taking over on trumpet, and the saxophones and trombones gaining stature. Some remakes of classics (especially "The Mooche"), everything first rate. A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1930, Volume 2 (1930 , Classics): A big year for Ellington, recording as the Jungle Band, the Harlem Footwarmers, and Mills' Ten Black Berries as well as under his own name. Mostly upbeat stompers, including three takes of "Ring Dem Bells," but also a gorgeous little piece initially called "Dreamy Blues" -- you know it as "Mood Indigo." A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1930-1931 (1930-31 , Classics): Another good run but more than the usual redundancy, with three takes of "Rockin' in Rhythm," more "Creole Rhapsody" and "Mood Indigo," and forgettable vocals by Billy Sith, Sid Garry, Chick Bullock, and others I've already forgotten. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1931-1932 (1931-32 , Classics): Starts with the band backing Earl Jackson on "Is That Religion?" -- then resets the mood with two helpings of "Creole Rapsody." Three-minute singles predominate, but you also get two 7-minute medleys of signature pieces, and a first release of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1932-1933 (1932-33 1992], Classics): Leans more toward vocal pieces, with Adelaide Hall, the Mills Brothers' "Diga Diga Doo" a hit, Ray Mitchell's vocal on "Star" very touching, Ethel Waters as fine as you'd expect. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1933 (1933 , Classics): Two takes of "Sophisticated Lady," which first appeared the year before, plus a lot of upbeat fare, including a rousing "Ain't Misbehavin'." Also an interview snippet, apparently from a UK tour. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1933-1935 (1933-35 , Classics): Most famous new song here is "Solitude"; least may be "Rude Interlude" -- in the previous interview he mentiond wanting to write a "Rude" song after someone misheard his recent his as "Rude Indigo." More vocals than usual: Louis Bacon (2), Ivie Anderson (3), Mae West. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1936-1937 (1936-37 , Classics): Starts with Ivie Anderson singing. Ben Webster joins on a couple of dates. The big band swings, but the Barney Bigard small group, (7-pieces, with Ellington on piano) is even hotter. Two cuts are piano solos, and the mix of "Mood Indigo and Solitude" is especially delectable. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1938 (1938 , Classics): More than half of the 23 cuts come from "small groups" led by Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, or Johnny Hodges ("Jeep's Blues"). Hodges get the vocal version of "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart", but the band's instrumental is even better. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1938 Vol. 2 (1938 , Classics): Again, half "small groups" (Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges), the rest by His Famous Orchestra, half with vocals, most often Ivie Anderson, bringing the superb instrumentals back to earth. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1938 Vol. 3 (1938 , Classics): Ellington recorded more in 1938 than any year since 1930 (probably to date), at least if you count the Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges small groups (10 of 22 cuts here). Hodges is superb here, especially on his own cuts ("The Jeep Is Jumpin'," "Hodge Podge," "Wanderlust"). A-
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1939 (1939 , Classics): Another very productive year, this covering March to June, with superb small groups led by Bigard and Hodges and a date backing a vocal group, the Quintones, on a couple of novelty numbers. B+(***)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: 1939-1940 (1939-40 , Classics): From October to February, only seven tracks with His Famous Orchestra, most of the rest small groups led by Barney Bigard and Cootie Williams, plus a bit of solo piano and two duets with new bassist Jimmy Blanton. Ben Webster rejoins in February, kicking off Ellington's most legendary band. B+(***)
Vienna Art Orchestra: Duke Ellington's Sound of Love, Vol. 2: Live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna (2003, EmArcy): Big band, founded by Mathias Rüegg in 1977, originally to play his own postmodernist compositions, but over the years they've delved into a wide range of jazz and classical composers, adding their own distinctively avant touches. Their previous Ellington volume came out in 2000. Highpoint here is a "Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue" that's messier than the Newport version but every bit as exciting (although no one dares go after Cat Anderson's high notes). A-
Ben Webster: Plays Duke Ellington (1967-71 , Storyville): Tenor saxophonist, played with Bennie Moten in 1932, moved to New York and played occasionally with Ellington from 1935, becoming a regular 1940-43, and he kept some of his major pieces in his songbook (especially "Cottontail"). This isn't a tribute, but was stitched together from several sessions, mostly fast jams but also a gorgeous "Satin Doll," and closes with a strong blues vocal (not sure who). A-
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week: