Somewhere to start?
Fortunately for us all, very nearly everything recorded by Duke Ellington has been reissued over and over again. So much is available that newcomers to the magical musical world of this remarkable man are bound to be daunted. Cutting down the list of available albums to just three is a crazy task, doomed to failure and one that is bound to raise dissenting voices. But ... here goes. Actually, I’m cheating a little because none is a decades-wide compilation, rather they show the Ellington band in three important and somewhat different lights and thus offer intriguingly varied glimpses of one of the finest bands ever to grace jazz.
The first of these CDs is The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird 5659), which comes from a short but highly productive and creative period in Ellington's life. He was of course always productive and creative, but this period, 1940-42, was astonishing even by his own high standards. Several of the band's members had already spent long periods as Ellingtonians: Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer; others were relative newcomers, notably Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, whose contributions were of such importance that their names were ever afterwards appended as identifiers for this brief era. Nothing is weak or wasted, even the alternative versions included here add to our knowledge and understanding of and delight in the band. But is it the real Duke Ellington?
The second album, Duke Ellington At Newport 1956 (Columbia Legacy C2K 64932), marks the turning point in public awareness of the band; that evening designed by an alchemist when everything went right. Its centrepiece is, of course, the roaring Paul Gonsalves solo that bridges the two parts of Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, even if this had the unfortunate effect of tying the saxophonist to a roof-raising role despite his being one of the most rhapsodic of Ellington's players (Webster and Hodges notwithstanding). Yet, in a way, what this album gives us, while an immensely enjoyable and true view of the band (this reissue gives us everything, including studio remakes), might also be something other than the real Duke Ellington.
If that sounds a little negative, it should perhaps be mentioned that it was Johnny Hodges who raised the question I have left hanging over the foregoing pair of truly marvelous sets of music and cast doubts upon the continued assertion from most critics and fans that these two albums are archetypal Ellington. What Hodges said was: ‘If you never heard Ellington play for dancing, then you never heard Ellington.’ It was a casual remark made to a friend but is worth thinking about, if only because Hodges was notoriously reticent and therefore anything he said is likely to have at least some truth in it. Of course, if he was accurate in what he said, then almost no one living today really heard Ellington; that’s because pretty nearly everyone around today has heard Ellington only on record or in the concert hall. And that is what the two foregoing albums are. In the case of The Blanton Webster Band we hear Ellington in the recording studio, bound by the three-minute side and, despite the glories that abound, affected as were almost all jazz musicians by the relative coldness of the setting. While Ellington At Newport was not really a concert hall, it did have that same general ambiance, albeit considerably livelier than most.
This is why the third album, The Duke At Fargo 1940 (Storyville 8361), is so special. This is a dance date, recorded with commendable foresight, by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, and with remarkably good sound considering the time and circumstances. Despite some minor technical shortcomings, this set captures that free floating spirit of an organization that was not only a great jazz band but was also a great dance band. The band's personnel is pretty much the same core of musicians as for The Blanton-Webster Band and many of the solos taken are on par with, or sometimes superior to, those on the studio dates. Over everything, though, hangs that indefinable ‘something’, an atmosphere that makes it possible to detect a glimmer of what it was that prompted Hodges to make his remark.
Having cut down the list of available Ellingtonia from hundreds to just three, I will not go further and try to choose between them and recommend just one album. Each of these is important, valuable, and in its own way a superb example of the extraordinary alchemy that was the Duke Ellington band. Bearing in mind that many might argue persuasively, with or without fanaticism, that it was the greatest band of them all, then even the impecunious newcomer would be justified in buying all of them.