JazzTimes 10: Very Late Duke Ellington Albums

Highlights of a master’s final decade

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.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.