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Duke Ellington: At the Alhambra

In concert at Paris’ Alhambra Theater just two years after its smashing success at the Newport Jazz Festival, the 1958 edition of the Duke Ellington band makes a strong case on this Pablo disc for bassist Jimmy Woode’s assertion that it was “the best band that [Ellington] had, swing-wise.” In spite of an insecure start, some recording difficulties (the trombones are too prominent) and the egregious reed problems experienced by clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton and tenorist Paul Gonsalves, the band sounds really good, generating infectious excitement or soulful expressiveness on a program heavy on the composer’s classics. Altoist Johnny Hodges displays his gorgeous tone and sinewy swing on a medley of “Jeep’s Blues,” “All of Me” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” trumpeter Ray Nance recreates his famous solo on “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Gonsalves once again takes chorus after rollicking chorus on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” The medley of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call” and “The Mooche” showcases Ellington’s scoring genius, Russell Procope’s lovely low-register clarinet sound and Quentin Jackson’s mastery of wah-wah muting. Other selections feature various members of the band, including the inimitable Clark Terry on flugelhorn on “Juniflip.” Drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Woode provide a rock-solid, propulsive beat.

Live and Rare is only partially that, since one entire disc in the three-disc set is devoted to a studio session and a number of the tracks were released previously. The collection consists of three complete earlier recordings (plus unreleased alternate or rehearsal takes), a few tracks previously issued as parts of collections and brief material where Ellington speaks and/or plays in informal settings, some of it new, some available before. Most of disc one is a remastered reproduction of the band’s last official recording, Eastbourne Performance, from an English concert in late 1973, a few months before Ellington’s death in 1974. Although nearly all of the long-time sidemen were gone, the band was still staffed with fine musicians. Standout moments include Ellington’s duet with bassist Joe Benjamin on “Pitter Panther Patter” and his arrangement of the uptempo “How High the Moon,” with its nod to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and a fiery bebop excursion by trumpeter Johnny Coles. Filling out the disc are a track from the concert that didn’t make it onto the original record (but was released elsewhere) plus short bits from a piano workshop at the 1965 Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, where Ellington and Earl Hines were Billy Taylor’s guests, and from the announcement party for the 1968 Newport festival.

The second disc reprises the 1965 LP The Duke at Tanglewood (with previously unreleased rehearsal takes), and features Ellington as soloist with bassist John Lamb, drummer Louie Bellson and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Although Richard Hayman’s arrangements of the Ellington classics are more Pops-oriented than Ellingtonian, the composer does manage to inject his own sensibility into his solos. And such lovely ballads as “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” actually lend themselves to Hayman’s lush treatment. The composer’s comments, taped for a radio program, separate the tracks.

The music on disc three, originally part of a Reader’s Digest big-band project, is indeed rare for Ellington, in that the tunes are pop hits of the era (1969) and except for probably one, were arranged by others. Further, on a number of the tracks, Ellington doesn’t even play. But the band cooks with verve and precision and the three takes of Johnny Hodges’ working-over of “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” are special.

Originally Published