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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.

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