Duke Ellington

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Duke Ellington

The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion, and Okeh Small Group Sessions (Mosaic)

Panic sets in initially: The first four discs of Duke Ellington's The Complete Small Group Sessions sequence multiple takes atop one another. Blessedly, the longest track of the entire 7-CD set is five minutes, with another 18 barely more three minutes, and the remaining 154 tracks under even that mark. Thing is, at an average length of 2:30, you're dying to hear the track again (granted, the rare third time not so much). This being jazz, no two takes even try sounding the same, so the effect is one of multiple chances to unravel the magic trick: How'd they do that? The scratches and hiss of the original recordings actually work to this advantage: With the background always shifting, and the foreground going for something equally unique, the outcome doesn't play out like hearing tunes twice, but rather the illusion creates instant déjà vu. That was you and yours swinging in Harlem last lifetime! Once the Ellington Orchestra is broken down into intimate all-starrings, Rex Stewart's laughing cornet hotfoots it center stage as fast as Barney Bigard's figure-skating clarinet on disc I's "Frolic Sam." Bigard's saucy Jazzopators rearrange trombonist Juan Tizol's "Caravan" on their way to "Stompy Jones," while a pair of Ellington piano solos prep the maestro's anchoring Cootie Williams' Rug Cutters on retro immortal "Digga Digga Do." When Duke's on a session, "swing" never sounded like such an abstract concept in the face of the real thing. Discs IV-VII, stunning all, feature a lush preponderance of Johnny Hodges, whose rabbitlike alto – wagging its cottontail one moment and a big, lazy lop-ear the next – underscores the likes of Mary McHugh's golden voice on "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart." Don't let it go out of yours. (Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902: 203/327-7111, www.mosaicrecords.com.)

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