The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra
Mosaic isn’t exactly mucking around on this gargantuan 11-disc set that essentially distills the first grand age of Ellingtonia into the contents of one box set. There would, of course, be other ages of comparable majesty, but this set represents the first full ripening of Ellington’s highly idiosyncratic and highly attuned big-band compositional style. In the whole of jazz there may be nothing that is so particular to a single individual as Ellington’s approach to writing. It is one thing to write songs that immediately become part of the popular culture, and another entirely to do so while writing for each individual member of an individual band, as Ellington does here.
A lot of these cuts were the hits of their day, and while it may seem odd to say that any artist could boast an 11-disc greatest-hits compilation, the idea really isn’t that novel once you sit down with this set. As always, Mosaic has scraped away decades of grime, and most cuts are now eminently crankable. Ellington was inextricable from the blues, and the multiple versions of “Blue Mood” attest to what he liked to do with it: liven it up with some crisp percussion from Sonny Greer and let Johnny Hodges blow his keening lines over the top, with his own piano chords serving as a kind of metronome beneath. Eventually, we find Ellington’s blues growing up into something more refined—and more like chamber music, but for the masses. Witness, then, “The New Black and Tan Fantasy” and a Barney Bigard clarinet line that is so high one could mistake it for feedback.
During this gilded epoch, Ellington balanced his growing penchant for grand gestures—the symphonic jazz poem, the extended suite—with the hard-swinging ravers that kept his Cotton Club constituents foot-tapping. What made all of it click was his ability to individually tailor song parts to his various virtuosos. “Trumpet in Spades,” from a summer 1936 date, is a number that Ellington presumably could not have written for anyone but Rex Stewart. There is fast playing, there is Freddie Hubbard playing, and somewhere beyond both realms there is what Stewart does on this track. When the band does cool it down, they tend to emphasize instrumental voicings—and actual voicings—that would become suggestive of vocal groups like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. On “Diga Diga Do,” from Christmastime 1932, the Mills Brothers play the vocalese role, while Ellington’s stalwarts serenade them from all sides with horn phrases that have a touch of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Listen to the song once and its title is apt to become your catch-phrase for the day, a piece of inspired (and inspiring) nonsense.
Listeners who prefer to sate themselves on outtakes are in for a bounty as well. Some are beleaguered by weak sound, but most are up to the sonic standards of the released cuts. If you enjoy being haunted by the music you listen to, try the alternate take of “Pyramid” from mid-1938. Ellington steps aside from his piano bench for a turn on a hand drum, birthing a rhythm-and-blues requiem. One is thankful when the horns occasionally enter to break the mood with their hearty condolences.