9. The Private Collection, Volume Five: The Suites, New York 1968-1970 (LMR, 1987)
Fun fact: While Ellington was working on new material, he tested it out by bringing in the band to make not-for-release recordings. Many of them have been released since his death, including these two magnificent long-form commissions. 1968’s Degas Suite was intended as a film score for Racing World, a (never completed) film featuring the Impressionist artist’s horse-race works. Highlights include the solo “Piano Pastel” (in two versions), the exciting “Daily Double,” and the gorgeous, remarkably non-racing “Race.” Better still is The River, a ballet score that did receive a public performance behind the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1970. Like so much of Ellington’s extended work, it rotates between playful and somber, but whatever the mood, it engages a remarkably lithe rhythmic sense (with a generous helping of Norris Turney’s flute) and continues Ellington’s trademark cross-pollinations of his band’s sections. Both pieces are rendered as single tracks; The River, though, often turns on a dime, making it difficult to distinguish between new or multi-part movements. Nevertheless, it was eminently worthy of release in its day, as was The Degas Suite, despite whatever reservations prevented Ellington from unleashing them on the world.