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Duke Ellington: Anniversary

This box from France is a substantial entry in the Ellington 100th anniversary sweepstakes. It covers the period from 1928 to 1948 but is not organized chronologically. Rather, each CD is devoted to a category: Ballads, Blues, Composer, Dance, Friends, Jungle, Ladies, New York, Pianist, Portraits, Soloists, Swing, and Vocal. Successive tracks may be from widely separated decades. In most cases that kind of compilation results in variety, even surprise, but the Ballads disc suffers from the concept; an hour of slow pieces at essentially the same tempo, even by Ellington, induces sleepiness.

Ellington’s increasingly sophisticated writing (augmented beginning in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn’s) supports his panoply of great soloists, among them Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Ben Webster, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, and Jimmy Blanton. The Friends disc gathers appearances by a gaggle of guests as diverse as Lonnie Johnson, Benny Carter, Bing Crosby, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Dick Vance, The Mills Brothers, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt. It includes Ethel Waters’ Armstrong, imitation on “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” Mae West’s insinuations on “My Old Flame,” and Billie Holiday interacting with Ellington’s (or Strayhorn’s) dramatic writing on “Big City Blues.” O’Day’s swinging “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” with Ellington and an Esquire all-star group suggests that further collaboration would have been fruitful.

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