Ellington’s Legacy

This month Columbia/Legacy is finally releasing three important Ellington CDs originally scheduled for 2003. This music has been unavailable far too long, especially Ellington Uptown and Masterpieces by Ellington , which collect key works from a remarkable and overlooked period, 1947 to 1953. (The third volume, Festival Session, revisits 1959.) Those were dire years for big bands, and even Ellington, one of the few orchestra leaders to survive the postwar economy and shift in musical tastes, suffered disturbing losses as Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown took sabbaticals.

But it was also the period when Columbia and RCA ended their war over microgroove, dividing the spoils between the former’s long-playing albums and the latter’s 45-RPM singles. Ellington was the first major composer to exploit the LP in creating extended new works.

With his 1956 triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington made a stunning comeback, yet consider what he had accomplished in the wilderness years: short-form marvels ranging from the modernist daydream “The Clothed Woman” to his last pop hit, “Satin Doll,” as well as elaborate works as varied as The Liberian Suite, A Tone Parallel to Harlem, “The Tattooed Bride” and the so-called “concert” arrangements of classic Ellington songs. Ellington had long chafed at the three-minute limit-he lost his Decca contract with a noncommercial two-sided 1931 recording, “Creole Rhapsody,” and, in 1935, made the four-sided “Reminiscing in Tempo,” eliciting critical derision that sent him into a brief, bitter seclusion.

Black Brown and Beige followed in 1943, a time when only excerpts could be recorded. The Liberian Suite, however, came along in time to make use of the new technology. Recorded in 1947, the year before Columbia introduced the LP, it consists of short dances that would have suited the 78-RPM disc. But Columbia issued it as a 10-inch LP, underscoring its grand design. With A Tone Parallel to Harlem, commissioned but never performed by Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra, and the 1950 “concert” expansions, Ellington eschewed the suite format in favor of continuous long-form works that reflected a liberation made possible by the LP.

The vividly languorous 15-minute “Mood Indigo” (on Masterpieces) exemplifies Ellington’s newfound freedom. Treating the familiar theme as a 48-bar reverie, the performance undulates in a sustained erotic yawn, primed to a subtle swinging pulse (much credit to bassist Wendell Marshall), achieving diverse epiphanies in the bright lyricism of Hodges (his last major Ellington session for nearly four years), the languid high notes of the obscure vocalist Yvonne Lanauze (just “Yvonne” on the original LP), and the animal-metaphor plunger-mute of trombonist Tyree Glenn, who makes every phrase a mewing “ya ya.” The reading is dreamy, gossipy, seductive, angry, exultant and very sexy.

Still, the neglected masterwork here is Harlem, stuffed with little fanfare in Ellington Uptown. In one sense, it’s a fitting addition to this best-selling album, which is also and less rationally expanded to include The Liberian Suite. Louie Bellson had joined the band early in 1951, and Ellington Uptown celebrated his arrival, a brief tenure-two years: a finger snap by Ellington standards-that reflected a profound alteration in Ellington’s approach to rhythm. The switch from Sonny Greer’s ornate drumming to Bellson’s jet-age propulsion transformed the band’s attack-Harlem is much enhanced by Bellson.

The piece raises questions about the nature of jazz. Excepting one midway blues chorus that appears to be extemporized by Ray Nance, it allows for no improvisation. Nor does it have a role for the pianist. Formally, Harlem is a cross between a concerto for orchestra and a rhapsody. Yet it undoubtedly belongs to jazz, unlike Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which it resembles in length and an overall structure that begins with a cadenza and blossoms at the two-thirds mark into an exquisite melody. Unlike Gershwin’s piece, it is ingeniously harmonized with inimitable Ellington-which is to say, jazz-voicings; moreover, it swings. The structure consists exclusively of basic jazz forms, two eight-bar themes and, between them, a blues. The lovely third theme, superbly evoked by trombonist Britt Woodman, is a hymn.

Ellington did an injustice to the work when he described the many elements of Harlem life he tried to evoke-a long list that led impressionable listeners on a fruitless search to identify each programmatic detail. In fact, this piece is seamlessly and sparingly wrought, with each theme allotted 10 choruses, plus several artful transitions, notably the interlude that sets up the hymn. Harlem begins with a two-note wake-up call, a rise-and-shine Ray Nance cadenza that builds to a frisky whinnying at the new dawn.

Throughout, each instrumental voice is decisively used-Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves and others are as vital as Nance, Woodman, Marshall and Bellson, whose drums announce the blues section at 4:39, a series of bracing ensemble choruses (note the turnback at the close of the fourth blues chorus), building with counterpoint, sundry tempos and a reprise of the wake-up call before a heartbreaking cortege-clarinet and commiserating trombones. Four bars by Carney’s bass clarinet introduce the trombone, preaching Ellington’s sermon. That theme carries us to a high-note climax, which caps an American masterpiece still largely unknown to America.