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July/August 2003

Duke Ellington
Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band
Bluebird

Among serious jazz listeners, Duke Ellington is considered the greatest musician of the 20th century, and conventional wisdom has it that his greatest work was recorded with his early 1940s orchestra featuring bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. You can argue either point if you want to, but not until you've thoroughly digested the 75 tracks contained in the three-CD set Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird). I envy listeners who will be introduced to these timeless performances for the first time. As a teen, I remember how startling it was to discover the timbral colorings and tonal effects of this orchestra, and what a thrill it was to learn and ultimately memorize Ben Webster's tenor solo on "Cottontail." It was the same with Cootie Williams' muted and open horn trumpet work on "Concerto for Cootie," and the oft-quoted Ray Nance solo on Billy Strayhorn's famous "Take the 'A' Train." Almost every track in this collection is a gem that bears repeated listening-from the super-swingers "Main Stem," "Jack the Bear" and "C Jam Blues" to the harmonically daring "Ko-Ko." Then, there's Duke's ode to the female anatomy, "Warm Valley," the elegant yet funky "Across the Track Blues" to the extraordinary Ellington-Blanton piano and bass duets and several tunes written for Ellington's ground-breaking show Jump for Joy, most notably Ivie Anderson's superb reading of "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart and Tricky Sam Nanton (listen to him say "ya-ya" on his trombone!) all get ample solo space to demonstrate their virtuosity, but despite the magnificent music contained, there are a few head-scratchers about this latest collection of Blanton-Webster Band music. Why the flimsy cover package? And why are the alternate takes grouped at the end of the second disc instead of following each master take or at the end of the final disc? The notes by Brian Priestley are good, as is the easy-to-read layout of the booklet. Some may quibble with the sound quality, but it's not bad considering the condition of the source materials. There is, however, a flaw in the transfer of "Conga Brava" that can be heard in the fifth measure, and some of the louder brass moments on other tracks have occasional blasts of distortion due to worn grooves. Still, these tracks are among the greatest recordings ever made, so it's hard to get too picky about the little things. I mean, you wouldn't complain if the Great Pyramids had a little sand on them, would you?

Originally published in July/August 2003
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