Duke Ellington,
Black, Brown & Beige,
Ellington at Newport 1956 Complete,
Such Sweet Thunder
(Columbia, 1999)

The Duke Ellington centenary is finally here, and tributes, re-releases and box sets are springing up from every label on which the Duke ever recorded. Columbia, God bless 'em, has really mined the studio vaults, bringing out a raft of re-releases, including alternate tracks that have never been released at all, as well as entire albums that had never made it to CD from vinyl. Two of those discs under discussion here are Duke's explorations into musical suites, while the other is one of his greatest live performances.

Let's start with the live Ellington at Newport 1956 Complete. The vinyl and previous CD release of this great set (and Ellington's best-selling record ever) contained only five or six tracks (I'm not sure which, since I dumped my old copy as soon as this one blew in the door). But this two-disc set holds 128 minutes of music, including not only the entire concert (much of it in stereo for the first time), but some of the same tunes that were recorded in the studio the following day, and released with taped applause as the real thing. Now we have both versions, including some of Duke's comments during the taping. The capstone of the concert, Paul Gonsalves' fiery 27-chorus solo in "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue," has never sounded better. If you're new to Ellington, here's the place to start.

Black, Brown & Beige is a suite that Ellington called "a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro." Written in 1943, this recording was made in 1958, and Mahalia Jackson was brought in to sing "Come Sunday" and Duke's musical setting of the 23rd Psalm, which she does magnificently. The suite is gorgeous, providing strong evidence to the claim that Ellington was indeed the greatest American composer of the 20th century. There are also bonuses galore, including a completely different, never before released take of the entire suite, as well as Mahalia Jackson doing a breathtaking a capella version of "Come Sunday." And if that's not enough, the producers threw in two other bonus tracks of alternates.

Such Sweet Thunder was recorded in 1956-57, and was commissioned by the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival. It consists of a dozen musical portraits of Shakespearean characters, with such titles as "Sonnet To Hank Cinq" (Henry V), "Lady Mac," and "The Star-Crossed Lovers." It's a daring conceit, but Ellington pulls it off the way he did everything, with immense musicianship and style. The Duke always knew how to write for his soloists, and that talent is all too obvious here, with Harry Carney's baritone sax playing a smooth yet vicious Iago, and the great Johnny Hodges' alto sax portraying a light and delicate Juliet to Gonsalves' tenor Romeo. The bonus tracks are in abundance here as well, with numerous alternate takes, as well as tunes that were not used in the final suite.

All in all, these discs reveal an amazing band playing amazing music by the most amazing composer/band leader ever. Kudos to Columbia for doing such a comprehensive job with these releases. And this year will only see many more. Already the complete Capitol recordings have been released, as well as the gigantic 24-disc set of the complete RCA recordings -- nearly fifty years worth of classic Ellington. My birthday's coming up in a few weeks, so expect to see my review of this huge compendium shortly. (Shortly? It's going to take weeks to listen to all of it!). So forego the PBS tributes and get a dose of the real Ellington -- there's plenty to go around, and there's nothing like it!

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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