by Mitch Myers
This 24-disc collection should have been titled Everything You Want To Know About Duke Ellington But Were Afraid To Ask. While the greatest bandleader-composer the world has ever seen released countless albums for a number of record labels, Duke’s special relationship with RCA endured — albeit sporadically — for nearly a half century. Capturing Ellington at the dawning of a long, illustrious career, these RCA recordings highlight the Ellington Orchestra from its legendary "Cotton Club" phase to Duke’s final days.
The first seven discs from this collection were recorded between 1927 and 1934 when the Ellington orchestra was brimming with variety, energy and a host of distinctive musicians. With several New Orleans jazz veterans blending Duke’s sophisticated horn arrangements with frenzied rhythms, joyful singing and expressive soloing, the early Ellington ensemble set a high musical standard that is cherished to this day. Showcasing the expressive plunger trumpet of Bubber Miley and the growling trombone of Tricky Sam Nanton, Duke’s ornate sound continually grew by leaps and bounds. Although the band’s personnel would change a great deal over the years, many musicians — such as altoist Johnny Hodges and baritone sax player Harry Carney — worked with Ellington for decades. The music from these early years is uniformly excellent and well worth investigating.
Ellington’s essential work from the ’40s is well represented here with virtuoso performances from bassist Jimmy Blanton and renowned tenor star Ben Webster. These prime recordings also profited from the writing and arrangements of Ellington’s musical soul mate, Billy Strayhorn.
While Ellington’s Sacred Concerts take up four discs and are an acquired taste at best, the Duke’s non-religious performances from this same period — especially "The Far East Suite" — are both stately and impressive.
Just because this collection costs a bundle doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the wonderful world of Duke Ellington. Maestro?