The Reprise Studio Recordings
The critics have largely neglected Ellington's Reprise period (late 1963 to early 1965), and in view of the abundance of Ellingtonia spawned by the Ducal centennial, some might not consider this set essential. That would be a mistake: the music in this flawlessly assembled compilation is uncommonly multi-faceted, even for Ellington, and wondrous to hear and behold.
When, at the behest of co-owner Frank Sinatra, Ellington was signed by Reprise, he was given a free hand to record what he pleased, both as his own producer, and as jazz A&R man for the label. True to character, the jazz press began to question that Ellington truly had carte blanche when he failed to do what they thought he ought to have done. Thus, while the initial Reprise LP, Afro Bossa, which consisted in the main of new Ellington and Strayhorn pieces, was well received, as was The Symphonic Ellington, which contained the first recording of "Harlem" as scored for the band plus symphony orchestra and the premiere of "Night Creature," the subsequent Ellington '65 and Ellington '66, compendiums of current hit tunes, and Mary Poppins, the Ellington-Strayhorn interpretation of the movie score, were considered lesser efforts. And so, predictably, was Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back?, Ellington's reconsiderations of the theme songs of a wide range of bands, sweet and hot. (Enough of these were recorded for two LPs, but the second didn't get issued until 1976, after Duke's death, as did the fascinating Jazz Violin Session; both appeared on Atlantic but are included here.)
Ironically, though the Afro Bossa material and the longer works (the collaborations with French, Italian, German and Swedish classical orchestras also yielded two new pieces, "Non-Violent Integration," and the charming "La Scala, She Too Pretty to Be Blue") certainly have their moments, as does the final Reprise effort, three studio sessions issued as Concert in the Virgin Islands, it is the non-Ellington material that frequently finds both band and soloists at their best. And that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with such superb albums of outside material from the previous decade as At the Bal Masque and All American. After all, Ellington and Strayhorn were master arrangers as well as composers, and anything they touched came out as Ellington music. There can be no doubt that Ellington chose to record such things as Beatles tunes ("All My Lovin'" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand"), "I Can't Stop Loving You" (a standout, not least due to Sam Woodyard-a paragon throughout, not at all intimidated by the massed symphonic forces and doing his best to make them swing), imported chestnuts like "Danke Schoen" (great Cootie Williams), "More," "Never on Sunday" and even "Blowin' in the Wind" (which Mark Tucker's excellent notes make more of than was on Ellington's mind, I'm certain) in order to attract fresh ears to his band, not least by way of airplay. It's no coincidence that the song list includes "Hello, Dolly!" (featuring Jimmy Hamilton's funky tenor). He was, after all, in charge of a touring orchestra that still played for dancers as well as for concertgoers, and there were salaries and bills to pay. But more significantly, making creative use of whatever materials might be at hand was something Ellington, well into his fifth decade as a bandleader, was a past master at.
To hear what he and Strayhorn could do with the not very distinguished Mary Poppins score is to witness sheer musical magic. In the hands of these mix-masters and the players who bring their notes to life these slender ditties are transformed into lessons in the art of jazz, offering proof positive that what Strayhorn called "the Ellington effect" could be applied to-well, just about anything. Hear "Feed the Birds" and marvel, and listen to "Chim Chim Cheree," and then try to find Louis Armstrong's version, for two kinds of alchemy. I hadn't heard this stuff since it first appeared, and had forgotten just how good it is. At this point in time, the band's greatest strengths were the incomparable reed section of Procope, Hodges, Hamilton, Gonsalves and Carney, intact since Johnny's return to the fold in 1955, and the powerful rhythm team of Ernie Shepard, unsung and in the band for barely a year-and-a-half, yet one of Duke's finest bassists, the super-soulful Woodyard, and the leader himself, arguably the greatest of all band pianists. The brass was temporarily strengthened by the joint presence of the recently returned Cootie and the terminal Ray Nance (the final Reprise session was his swan song as a regular bandsman).
Standout solo contributions are made by Hodges (it's fascinating to hear him on "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set"-a tribute to the Quincy Jones band-which had already been nailed twice, alto-wise, by Phil Woods and then Benny Carter; Hodges was not competitive by nature, but Duke surely had something in mind here), Paul Gonsalves (unarguably one of the greatest jazz tenor saxophonists of all time and in wonderful form here) and Lawrence Brown (his vibrato, always pronounced, is sometimes too broad for my taste, but there's no denying his fervor and imagination-and endurance). When given the spotlight (as always, too rarely for my taste) Harry Carney responds magnificently-hear the dignity he lends to "Stranger on the Shore," for one example. Cootie's a man of fewer notes than ever at this stage, but knows how to milk that huge sound for all it's worth; it is interesting to note that he was still following in Armstrong's footsteps. Ray Nonce, forced out due to Cootie's hostility, has some characteristically emotional cornet passages, but makes his most outstanding contributions on the fiddle. Not least among these: his part on the truly amazing Strayhorn recasting of "Artistry in Rhythm," where he converses with a plunger-muted Cootie. Almost as striking is Strayhorn's approach to "Rhapsody in Blue," but almost all the big-band tributes are full of surprises, "Auld Lang Syne" (for Lombardo!) included.
Mosaic excluded from its Reprise purview Duke Ellington's Greatest Hits and the 1963 Paris concert, which makes sense, but also the session, never issued in the U.S., featuring Swedish singer Alice Babs with the band, which is a pity. But they did include the Jazz Violin Session, an absolute gem that features the distinctively different styles of Ray Nance, Stephane Grappelli and the trio's sole survivor, Denmark's Svend Asmussen (still active at 84 and still at the cutting edge of jazz violin). With Ellington as a very active comper, and occasional assists from Russell Procope, Gonsalves and trombonist Buster Cooper, this Parisian get-together features what might be Ellington's hippest scoring for strings, certainly more than what is heard in the symphonic works here. (Asmussen, by the way, is said to be playing viola; I suspect it's a tenor violin, which he also used around this time on his memorable LP with John Lewis.)
In all, then, this is a hugely enjoyable Ellingtonian feast, presented in Mosaic's customarily impeccable manner, including fine photography. Mail order only: www.mosaicrecords.com; 203-327-7111.