Duke Ellington The Duke: The Essential Collection 1927-1962 (Columbia)
Reviewed by Christopher Gray, Fri., May 19, 2000
The Duke: The Essential Collection 1927-1962 (Columbia)How did someone who knows as much about jazz as he does, say, maritime law wind up with this cherry 3-CD anthology? Just lucky, I guess. Up until now, my most personally significant Duke was the star of Rio Bravo, The Searchers, and The Shootist, so if you're looking for a detailed technical analysis of the 66 tracks contained herein, go read Down Beat. Thankfully, The Duke doesn't skimp on selections familiar to even the most jazz-illiterate ears; "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Prelude to a Kiss," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Sophisticated Lady," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Take the 'A' Train," "Mood Indigo," and "Satin Doll" are all present and accounted for. And it certainly doesn't take a scholar to appreciate the top-notch chops of Ellington's multitude of associates: saxophonist Johnny Hodges, clarinetist Barney Bigard, trombonists Juan Tizol and Tyree Glenn, trumpeter Ray Nance, bassists Oscar Pettitford and Wendell Marshall, and drummers Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard, for starters. Ellington was a democratic sort of bandleader, as hardly a number goes by without some sort of solo from one of his crew -- the multitalented Nance taking a tongue-twisting vocal turn on "Antidisestablishmentarianismist" and supplying slippery violin to "Maybe I Should Change My Ways" being just two examples. Duke was hardly above taking a few bars as his own, either; his resonant ragtime/silent-movie piano carries "Black Beauty" all by itself. None of the cuts off The Duke ever stray far from the ballroom, whether the fog-shrouded Harlem nocturnes "Lady of the Lavender Mist" and "On a Turquoise Cloud" or the lively jump-swing of "In a Jam" and the animated brass/winds conversation of "Battle of Swing." Dancers' enjoyment must have been paramount in Ellington's mind, as almost all the collection's compositions clock in under four minutes ("The Tattooed Bride," "Take the 'A' Train," and "Come Sunday" stretch things out a bit longer), and light-fantastic trippers are even saluted in the title of "Dancers in Love." Even so, there was much more going on than foxtrot fodder; Duke's wicked big-band arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" makes a convincing case that jazz belonged equally in the concert hall as on the dance floor, as does Kay Davis' near-operatic vocal on "Creole Love Call." In short, there's something for everyone here, even those for whom "The Tattooed Bride" conjures up images of Lil' Kim's nuptials -- my hip-hop-damaged eyes first read "Primpin' at the Prom" as, you guessed it, "Pimpin' at the Prom." But that only goes to show that, sort of like Duke Wayne, when this towering American icon's prodigious repertoire is distilled into three-plus hours of such delectable jive, even novices like yours truly have to give the man his props. Gladly.