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Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: The Jaywalker

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That resource known as Ellingtonia is not finite. Here are four more releases involving previously unissued material, alternate takes and bonus tracks-and there’s more where they came from, thanks to a “stockpile” referred to in The Jaywalker as a vast collection of tapes “recorded at Ellington’s own expense during the last 20-30 years of his life.” This CD’s 23 tracks (that’s right, well over 76 minutes) were recorded in 1966 and ’67. The title refers to an English play for which Ellington wrote incidental music. They comprise nine of the tracks here, but as is typical of so many of the prolific Duke’s commissions, no one on either side of the pond seems to know if the play was ever performed, or how the music was used. What is known is that some of it found its way into other Ducal delights: “Mac,” a gorgeous melody, turned up in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert as a vehicle for Alice Babs’ wordless vocalizing, and “Traffic Extension” was born again as a blues in “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” As for most everything else on The Jaywalker, it is just one highlight after another, thanks to some familiar names: trumpeter Cootie Williams plunging through “The Shepherd”; Buster Cooper driving “Untitled Blues,” followed by seven great tenor choruses from Paul Gonsalves; the “Chromatic Love Affair,” showing Harry Carney’s romantic side on baritone-in Duke’s words, “a love approached half a step at a time”; and above all, Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” as a vehicle for Johnny Hodges.

The three albums from Columbia/ Legacy have various common threads, guaranteeing an abundance of information and controversy. Each contains the original liner notes; fortunately each is updated by Ellington expert Patricia Willard, who gives a much-needed track-by-track account of the goings on and tackles the issue of the eight bonus tracks on Blues in Orbit. As Ms Willard writes, “The custom of releasing alternate takes would have offended Ellington.” But the album is a gas, filled with highlights such as the minor-mode blues “The Swingers Get the Blues, Too” and a typical bit of Ellington voicing on “Blues in Blueprint,” with Harry Carney on bass clarinet and bassist Jimmy Woode playing in unison over Duke’s snapping fingers!

Nothing negative can be said about Duke’s orchestra, but it’s such a pleasure to hear “the piano player,” as he self-deprecatingly referred to himself, without all that clutter, on Piano in the Foreground, which features him and a great rhythm section: Aaron Bell or Jimmy Woode on bass and drummer Sam Woodyard. Note Bell’s strong pulse in “Blues For Jerry,” and his firm arco throughout the tone poem “Fontainebleau Forest.” Among the bonus tracks are Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” played lovingly, and “All the Things You Are,” followed immediately, and unnecessarily, by a second take.

The misnamed Piano in the Background finds Duke all over the place, and these are the most exciting charts among all these discs. Recorded mostly in 1960, the band was at its peak of popularity and enthusiasm, and adrenaline shots from arrangers Gerald Wilson and Bill Mathieu helped. Highlights abound: the infectious “Happy Go Lucky Local”; the even more joyous “Rockin’ in Rhythm”; Duke’s stride that opens “Mid-Riff” and the Sam Woodyard flurry that closes it; “Main Stem” could have and should have gone on forever, ditto “Take the ‘A’ Train”-especially Duke’s introductory choruses. He was on fire, just like the band. Thanks to combined arranging efforts of Jimmy Hamilton, Clark Terry and Gerald Wilson, “Perdido” is one of the most boppish charts Duke ever played, and as for bonuses, the first “Lullaby of Birdland” is a keeper.