The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958
In gathering from a limited time frame a selection of what can be regarded in one way or another as concept albums, The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 enjoyably demonstrates how context can influence the way we hear things. Ranging from ambitious themed projects to extended remakes of early classics, this nine-disc collection emphasizes how restlessly wide-ranging the maestro was creatively—even at a time when it was being said his best days were behind him.
A year into the decade, three of his major studs, saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer, bolted the Ellington stable (as Duke would bolt Columbia for Capitol in 1953 for three years). Ellington wasn’t turning out major works with his old regularity. And even after the wildly popular Ellington at Newport (1956) re-established his royal stature and landed him on the cover of Time magazine, he was not the surefire commercial force he once was.
But as The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection attests, his artistic vision was never less than lofty. The arrival of the extended-play LP afforded him the opportunity on Masterpieces by Ellington (1951) to expound on old favorites such as “Mood Indigo,” the luminous 15-minute remounting of which showed he didn’t need to write from scratch to assert his compositional genius. Ellington Uptown (1952) unveiled the magnificent “Tone Parallel to Harlem” and rescued from 10-inch limbo a 1947 recording of his “Liberian Suite.” (New drummer Louis Bellson’s pyrotechnical playing on the album opener, “Skin Deep,” was a roaring statement of renewal.)
Following Blue Rose, Ellington’s seductive 1956 date with Rosemary Clooney—which became a conceptual album when circumstance forced the singer to record in Los Angeles after his orchestra had recorded its parts in New York—came A Drum Is a Woman. A playful allegory created for a TV special, this love-it-or-hate-it work traces the origins of jazz, personified by the all-seeing Madam Zajj, to Africa and the Caribbean. Whatever you think of Ellington’s eccentric narration, his recasting of the relationship between words and music is bold and bracing and plenty of choice moments are provided by singers Margaret Tynes and Joya Sherrill, as well as Hodges (back in the fold), tenorman Paul Gonsalves and Ray Nance on trumpet.
Critics had no problem calling the monumental Such Sweet Thunder (1957), Ellington’s take on Shakespeare, a masterpiece—not with imperishable songs like “The Star-Crossed Lovers.” And the inspired remake of Black, Brown and Beige that followed, featuring Mahalia Jackson’s spiritually haunting rendering of “Come Sunday,” only added to the reputation of that towering work.
Not everything in this collection has the stamp of immortality. Ellington Indigos (1957) and At the Bal Masque (1958) were solid commercial efforts that mixed originals and standards to varying effect. The latter recording, one of Ellington’s most lighthearted with its swinging treatments of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” and “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” was notable for having party sounds added to it and being passed off as a live dance album.
The final disc, The Cosmic Scene (1958), is a sparkling collection of new tunes, classics and standards given buoyant, full-bodied readings by Duke Ellington’s Spacemen, an unusual brass-heavy octet drawn from the orchestra including Gonsalves, trumpeter Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. A great discovery for many listeners when Mosaic reissued it in 2006, The Cosmic Scene was one of many Columbia recordings by Ellington that was long out of print. While this collection is short on frills (you’ll need a magnifying glass to read the original liner notes), having all of this material available again, at a reasonable price ($61.99 online), more than makes up for that.