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Duke Ellington: A Listener’s Guide

A longtime student of Duke Ellington’s music, British journalist Eddie Lambert died in 1987, but not before completing this definitive study of the master’s art, a project he began in 1976, two years after Duke’s death, and completed in 1984. Now, with the help of Elaine Norsworthy, who knew Lambert well, and the Institute of Jazz Studies’ Dan Morgenstern, this long-awaited companion to the recorded ouevre has finally reached publication. Initially designed as a means of informing others of the many rewards to be found in a concentrated examination of Ellington’s recordings, it soon grew into a reflective history of the band and it’s times as well. Like Ellington’s own, Lambert’s palette is impressively wide, as he traces the development of his subject’s autodidactic progress through the mysteries of arranging and composing, the gradual development of an identifiable orchestral style between 1924 and 1927, and, ultimately, the creation of a body of landmark recordings that surpasses anything produced by any other musician associated with jazz.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parallel sections which interweave in alternating chapters and adhere to the same chronological parameters. For each discrete time frame, the leading chapter deals with detailed, analytical descriptions of every recording made within that period, with a concluding list of outstanding performances, while the following chapter discusses such apposite historical matters as the state of the music business, the band’s working regimen, the recording industry, the activities of other contemporaneous bands and includes a closing section devoted to the backgrounds, primary attributes, and representative recorded performances of each new addition to the personnel. For example, Chapter Four covers the recordings made between October 1927 and January 1929, and its follow-up is entitled “The Miley Era.” Subsequent chapter titles are “Cotton Club Days,” “The First Full Flowering,” “Steppin’ Into Swing Society,” “1940-An Artistic Peak,” “Departures and Arrivals,” and so on through “The Final Years.” Additionally, one of the four equally useful appendices lists, for the first time, the dates of employment for all of Duke’s sidemen, even unto the occasional hiatus or interrupted tenure, i.e., Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams, or such briefly employed musicians as drummer Frankie Dunlop (March-April 1960).

Significantly, Lambert does not limit his discussion only to commercially released titles by the big band. He also devotes equal attention to small band sessions from the ’20s through the ’70s, air checks and live dance recordings, concerts, transcriptions, and all other recorded performances, inclusive of film soundtracks, the latter day suites and tone poems, and the three sacred concerts. But these treatments are no more offered at the expense of his straightahead jazz recordings than are the embarrassing pop trifles pumped out in times of desperation. All are grist for the mill. Lambert’s comparative analyses, particularly of alternate takes and successive performances of the same title or arrangement, are especially instructive and invariably on the mark. He was clearly a man of discernment.

One regret, however, is that he did not live to report on the spate of recently released recordings from the Ellington stockpile, as well as so many other CDs of “new” material that has surfaced since his death. But the closing discographical section does include, in addition to Lambert’s original listings, an alphabetically arranged, updated addendum, as compiled by Sjef Hoefsmit.

Originally Published