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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.

An entire disc devoted to Ellington as piano soloist emphasizes that although his true instrument may have been his orchestra, he was an accomplished and immediately identifiable player of his original one. The Vocalists disc presents his best singers, from Adelaide Hall to Kay Davis, and musicianly ones like Sonny Greer, Cootie Williams and Ellington himself. In short, all of the categories are filled to overflowing and the collection surveys two of the most important decades of Ellington’s incredible career.

The set includes most of Ellington’s best-known recordings-and many others-from Brunswick, RCA Victor, Columbia, Musicraft, and radio air checks and transcriptions. Thus, the Blues volume has “Yellow Dog Blues” (Brunswick, 1929), “Jeep’s Blues” (Columbia, 1938), and “Main Stem” (RCA Victor, 1942), although neither the liner notes nor the scanty discographical information identifies the original labels. The track listings identify soloists, but there are a few omissions and oversights. As an example, Tricky Sam solos not once but twice on “Harlem Speaks.” The same track, “New York City Blues,” appears on two discs. There are no complete listings of orchestra personnel, a drastic-indeed, unforgiveable-shortcoming. The producers give no track timings. Digital remastering delivers the good sound expected of reissues in the late ’90s.

Along with the music, the purchaser of so extensive a historical set should reasonably expect detailed information about the music’s origin and circumstances. Claude Carriere’s album notes go a pathetically short way toward that goal, with teasing lines like this: “Toward the end of the forties, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman, already engaged in a friendly rivalry, were convened to record together by the label with which they were both under contract.” Cute. It was Columbia. Why not say so?

But the music is great. To paraphrase Miles Davis, let us give thanks for Duke Ellington.

Originally Published