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Duke Ellington: The Duke Ellington Centenary Collection: The Travelog Edition

First released by MusicMasters between 1993 and 1995 as single or double CDs, the five concerts collated here in a packaged set of six discs span the Ellington band’s activities between 1946 and 1964. Starting with the earliest, the Chicago Civic House double-disc album (indicated by the first two “total times” listed above) consists of two completely different shows from January and November 1946, while the equally lengthy single concert of December 1948 from Ithaca’s Cornell University is contained on the third and fourth discs. The fifth disc brings together 14 selections chosen by Mercer Ellington from concerts staged in London in January 1963 and February 1964, while the final disc departs from the customary orchestral setting in showcasing Duke, his rhythm section of bassist Peck Morrison and drummer Sam Woodyard, and, in brief appearances, his early mentor, stridemaster Willie “The Lion” Smith, and his longtime “alter ego,” Billy Strayhorn. This final performance dates from a May 1964 concert at New York’s Columbia University. Thus, we have the loosely threaded “Travelog” connection between Chicago, Ithaca, London, and back home to New York.

On the hundred or so performances heard on these recordings, there are a few titles that inevitably will be repeated. But much more important are such standout spots as guest star Django Reinhardt’s nonpareil solo work on “Ride, Red, Ride” (an improvisation on “Tiger Rag” changes); “A Blues Riff,” “Improvisation #2,” and “Honeysuckle Rose” from November 1946; Oscar Pettiford’s January 1946 “Pitter Panther Patter” take on Jimmy Blanton’s original solo; and from the Cornell concert, Harry Carney’s “Paradise” and “Fantazm” solos, Johnny Hodges’ “Brown Betty,” Ray Nance’s sizzling violin and Shorty Baker’s trumpet on the way-up “Humoresque,” and the magnificent Ben Webster’s love caress-turned-rough-play feature on the multi-tempoed “How High the Moon.” From the better recorded 1963-64 performances in London it is especially difficult to isolate outstanding moments, primarily because the band now boasted in its ranks, in addition to Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Hodges, Carney, and Jimmy Hamilton, who all soared before, such more recent additions and substitutions as Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, and the band’s most swinging drummer ever, Sam Woodyard. Virtually every performance on the London date, including the extended “wailing interval” solo by Gonsalves on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” is a winner.

Ending on a contrast, the concluding Columbia concert offers a special treat-Duke as the principal soloist, with such old buddies as “The Lion” and “Sweetpeas” offering, both respectively and respectfully, their turns on James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” the Strayhorn/Ellington “Tonk,” and Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Of the Ellington solos, the least widely heard are “Skillipoop,” “Melancholia/Reflections In D,” “Little African Flower,” and “Bird of Paradise.”

It is easy to understand how collectors can become overwhelmed by the proliferation of new Ellington releases, some literally “brand new,” that is to say, those presenting previously unreleased material, and others offering repackaged collections of familiar material. The best advice we can give is to avoid “best of” anthologies and invest in complete collections of certain periods according to personal choice, i.e., the ’20s and ’30s, the ’40s, the post-Newport 1956 era, etc. Also keep an eye out for quality-produced aircheck recordings, as these will often appear on independent labels.

Originally Published