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Duke Ellington: The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion and Okeh Small Group Sessions

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The names tell the whole story. Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard-the principal figures of these seven vital discs, not to mention their indispensable cohorts: drummer Sonny Greer, bassists Billy Taylor and Jimmie Blanton, trombonist Lawrence Brown, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and pianist-arranger Billy Strayhorn among them-have attained mythic stature, as if each was a jazz knight presided over by a Duke named Ellington.

It’s hard not to wax romantic about a set like this, infused as it is with an elevated musical aesthetic emblematic of a now long gone era. The three-minute small-band gems that Duke Ellington fashioned around the key soloists of his orchestra are miracles of compression. The vast majority of these 243 tracks expertly integrate inspired ensemble playing, pithy, often glittering solos, and imaginative arrangements into compact settings with jewel box perfection. Ellington’s imagination was seemingly limitless, but a salient element of his genius lay in knowing when just enough was just right.

The expressive secret of these sessions lies in their communal nature. No matter who is nominally being featured on a record date, the supporting players also rise to the occasion: a Rex Stewart date will teem with stately Hodges solos, a Hodges session will find Williams growling to perfection; Ellington himself provides apt and individual piano support throughout. Without attribution, it’s often difficult to tell whose date is whose; ensemble cohesion trumps all, to the music’s benefit.

Celebrated performances-“Jeep’s Blues,” “Blue Light,” “Echoes of Harlem,” “Mobile Blues,” “Finesse,” “Rent Party Blues”-constitute the main course, yet less renowned pieces also bulge with extravagant improvising and taut small-group writing. The bonus of the first two of the remarkable Ellington-Blanton duets add to the bubbling atmosphere of limitless creativity that was prime Ellingtonia in the late 1930s.