Where does one start in grappling with the enormity of Ellington's recorded output? This isn't intended as any sort of a definitive listing, but rather a few of my favorite Ellington albums (besides Live at Newport
, of course) that might represent a cross section of his work. These titles may not necessarily comprise what "the experts," consider his best works, but are rather those works I've found myself playing the most over the past few years.
- Money Jungle (Blue Note): One of my desert island discs and a date that should dispel any notion of Ellington being anything other than a first-rate pianist. With Max Roach on drums and Charles Mingus on bass, sparks fly on this 1961 session as the trio forges some of the most volatile music in the entire Ellington canon.
- Piano Reflections (Capitol Jazz): Another trio date, this 1953 set finds Ellington in a more relaxed, and indeed, reflective mood. This is Ellington and his piano at their most sublime.
- Black, Brown & Beige (RCA Bluebird): The 1940-41 Blanton-Webster band is said to have been his best ever, but I find myself listening more often to the 1944-46 band represented on this 3-CD release. There's a bit of everything here: terrific versions of many Ellington standards, numerous vocals, a complete suite, and various shades of the blues. It's all here.
- The Far East Suite (RCA Bluebird): Of Ellington's many extended works, this is by far my favorite. Written following a U.S. State Dept. tour of the Far East, this late work from 1966 is simply magnificent, with Johnny Hodges' ethereal reading of "Isfahan" and the ensemble's dazzling "Ad Lib on Nippon" being the standouts.
- The Duke's Men: Small Groups, Vols. 1 & 2 (Columbia): Of late, I've been listening more intently to the various Ellington small groups, which are condensed figurations of his orchestra. Some of the best of these late-Thirties recordings, led by the likes of Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart, and Johnny Hodges, can be found here.
- Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse): This historic pairing from 1962 is a milestone for obvious reasons, and the duo's reading of Ellington's gorgeous "In A Sentimental Mood" is as haunting a piece of music as you'll ever hear.
- Uptown (Columbia): Most notable for an extended version of "Take the 'A' Train," this 1951-'52 recording features a wonderful scatting vocal turn from the underrated Betty Roche and a nicely rendered "Harlem Suite."
- Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia Legacy): A rousing yet nuanced film score from 1959 that was reissued just last week with an entire album's worth of previously unissued bonus tracks.
- The Jungle Band: The Brunswick Era 1929-31, Vols. 1 & 2 (MCA Decca): For a good representation of early Ellington during his Cotton Club years, this is the album I usually turn to. --J.T.