s Tom Hull: Rearview Mirror

Rearview Mirror #4

Truly, Beyond Category

by Tom Hull

Masterpieces by Ellington
(1950-51, Columbia/Legacy)

Ellington Uptown
(1947-52, Columbia/Legacy)

The conventional wisdom is that Ellington's career had three peaks: the 1927-29 "jungle music" period, the supreme 1940-42 band with Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, and his 1956 smash comeback at Newport. That's kind of like pointing out three summits in the Himalayas without noting that the tectonic force of the Indian subcontinent thrust all of Tibet two miles above sea level. Ellington was such a force that magnificent peaks were inevitable, but Masterpieces in particular reminds us that even his valleys could be pretty wondrous. Cut at the beginning of the LP era, it consists of stretched, lushly orchestrated remakes of three ballads from his allegedly fallow early '30s: "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Solitude" -- songs that have been recorded over a thousand times -- along with the more recent, and more upbeat, "The Tatooed Bride." In the mid-'40s, with Blanton dead, Webster gone, bebop redefining hip, and R&B capturing pop, Ellington went his own way, becoming what we now recognize as America's Greatest Composer. He did this by stringing his melodies together to form suites and by polishing the orchestration. He started the '40s with a great dance band (cf. his famous 1940 concert in Fargo, N.D.), and by mid-decade was playing Carnegie Hall. But until the advent of the LP it wasn't possible to reproduce his longer works. Masterpieces was meant to show that his already famous songs could be gussied up to challenge the accepted standards of Euro-classical sophistication, and it's a beautiful, extravagantly vivid piece of work.

Ellington Uptown, cut in 1952 with his band upset by the departure of Johnny Hodges, is more of a mixed bag. Again, he dug into his songbook for "The Mooche," "Perdido," and a rousing "Take the 'A' Train" highlighted by Betty Roché's scat vocal. But he also included a feature for new drummer Louis Bellson and the long "A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite)" -- one of the most complex (and brilliant) things he ever recorded. The new edition adds two earlier extended pieces, "The Controversial Suite" and "The Liberian Suite," to forge a sterling example of this transitional period. Ellington's suites aren't all that easy to listen to -- in particular, the rhythm can trip up, and the shifts sometimes seem awkward -- but he is capable of surpassing beauty, especially with the horns. Ellington used to claim that his real instrument was his band; that was never more obvious than on these early '50s records.

Two of a Mind
(1962, Bluebird)

Duke Ellington's Far East Suite
(1966, Bluebird)

This is the third time these records have been rereleased on CD: first in 1991, again in 1996, and then last year. The first two times they came out in midprice packages, similar to the original LP configurations. The strategy this time is to stuff them with bonus tracks and price them high. One can argue whether that's a good deal, but what's inarguable is that these are two of the real treasures in Bluebird's extensive (and often out of print) catalog. (Whatever happened to Early Ellington? The Great Ellington Units? Lionel Hampton's Hot Mallets?) Best known for his work with Dave Brubeck, Desmond's sound on alto sax was cool, clean, and remarkably pretty. Mulligan, in turn, played an exceptionally fluid baritone sax, and this loose, friendly program nicely contrasts the two horns' styles. Inspired by a 1963 tour that stretched from Damascus to Calcutta, Ellington's Far East Suite is a set of relatively independent pieces based on Asian scales and evocative of their discoveries, but dressed up to exploit the band's panoramic colors: the high trumpet on "Tourist Point of View," the marvelous piano theme that kicks off "Mount Harissa," the trilling clarinet on "Ad Lib on Nippon," the sheer beauty of "Isfahan."

Saucy Calypsos: Volume One

Calypso is the most literate of the world's musics -- check the dazzling wordplay of stars like Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener -- but this promising collection of double entendres takes more entendre than I can muster, even with the crutch of a lyric sheet. Kitch's "Handy Man" is the easiest of the bunch, and I get how Duke's "The Dentist" promises "to get the fill to fit inside proper/I'll have to drill to open it wider," but I don't see what's so saucy about Sparrow's plot for his girlfriend to "Sell the Pussy" ("And bring all the cash to me"). What is saucy is the music, with its slinky beat and popping horns. No Volume Two as yet, but the label seems to have a lock on classic calypso, and it's good news that their Mighty Sparrow comps are back in print again.