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January/February 1999

Duke Ellington/Ella Fitzgerald
The Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington: Cote d'Azur Concerts on Verve
Verve

Recorded live by Norman Granz between July 26 and 29, 1966, in Juan-les-Pins, a tiny beachside village on the Riviera, the concerts heard here are especially revelatory for the sheer magnitude of the material that has been withheld from public scrutiny for so long. In 1967, Verve issued both a double-LP album called Ella & Duke at the Cote d'Azur and an all-instrumental single, "Soul Call," the combined contents of which totalled 20 tracks, while the CD era saw the addition of two titles to the Cote d'Azur reissue. However, this eight-disc, 110-track set reveals that not only did around 80% of the completed performances remain on the shelf for over 30 years, but that most of it is superior to what was originally released. Ellington collectors have for decades had access to this material via tape trading, but now, for the first time, everyone can enjoy these long closeted riches, and with the added advantage of digital remastering to boot.

Out of the 110 tracks, there are 88 previously unreleased performances, only 15 of which are variously lengthed rehearsal tracks, replete with relevant studio talk by Duke and some of his sidemen, and these are conveniently placed together on the final disc. Mostly partial performances, they include bits, pieces, and solid chunks of "The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues," "Blue Fuse No. 2," "Blue Fuse No. 1," "The Shepherd," and, as a closer, "Tingling is a Happiness," a completed piano solo by Duke. Prior to this methodologically revealing, fly-on-the-wall experience, though, we hear so much top-grade Ellington in one concentrated weekend that it boggles the mind. Not only did Duke's 1966 band still maintain the heated standards that it had set at Newport exactly 10 years before, but by this time, with its reliance on themes from the 1957 Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder, as well as other older and more recent compositions, it also benefited from the return of long absented stars Cootie Williams and Lawrence Brown, who in spots assumes the muted wa-wa role originally defined by his longtime sectionmate, the incomparable Tricky Sam Nanton. Even more generously featured throughout the program are the band's all-time greatest soloist, Johnny Hodges, and the brilliant Paul Gonsalves, as well as Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Cat Anderson, Buster Cooper, Sam Woodyard, and Duke himself. On the second half of Disc 7, following Gonsalves' surprisingly modal turn on "The Trip," we are further treated to former Ellington stars Ben Webster and Ray Nance guesting on "Jive Jam," "All Too Soon," "The Old Circus Train . . .," "It Don't Mean a Thing," and "Just Squeeze Me," the last two titles of which are largely, and wastefully, devoted to self-indulgent vocals at the expense of more valuable solos by the visiting hornmen.

However disproportionate in number to her top billing on this set, the finely tuned, ebullient Ella's swinging contributions are admittedly impressive, both with her Jimmy Jones-led trio and the band itself. But incredible as it may seem to some that most of her performances have also remained unissued until now, this might be explained in part by the inappropriateness of some of her current pop tune choices. Her best numbers include a rousing "Cotton Tail," "Satin Doll," "Let's Do It" (dig her pronunciation of "Sonny and Tchur" [Cher] in service of a rhyme with "her"), and "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Originally published in January/February 1999
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