Recent Listening: Ellington 1932-1940

This wraps up discussion of the albums I voted for in the 2011 Rhapsody critics poll.

The Complete 1932-40 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington And His Famous Orchestra (Mosaic)

This magnificently produced and remastered set of 11 CDs covers the Ellington era from roughly the end of his Cotton Club years to the beginning of what has come to be called the Blanton-Webster band.

As Steven Lasker notes at the end of his invaluable essay for this set, Duke Ellington’s 1940-41 band is “widely considered to be the greatest orchestra in jazz history.” Listeners should ignore any inclination to take that assessment as encouragement to dismiss what came before. The last tracks in this magnificently produced and remastered box of 11 CDs encompass the beginning of the Ellington edition later named informally for the advent of bassist Jimmie Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The set covers the Ellington era from roughly the end of his Cotton Club years to the earliest four pieces recorded by the Blanton-Webster band on February 14, 1940.

The sophistication, complexity and subtlety in Ellington’s work were to become more advanced, but they were well established in the 1920s and finely honed by 1932. To single out a few of the earlier tracks, we hear all of those maker’s marks in “Lazy Rhapsody,” “Blue Tune,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” and the celebrated collaboration with Bing Crosby on “St Louis Blues.” Ellington’s writing supported soloists so integrated into the band that they and the Ellington ethos became inseparable. Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Joe Nanton Cootie Williams, Ivie Anderson, Arthur Whetsel and the others were on a voyage of discovery with Ellington through the 1930s. His hit recordings brought Ellington wide acceptance without the band’s locking into predictable patterns of sound or style. “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Caravan,” “Prelude To A Kiss” helped bring the orchestra fame, but the public also accepted the innovations in “Black Butterfly,” “Boy Meets Horn,” the merry agitation of “Harlem Speaks” and the daring four-part “Reminiscing In Tempo.”

Many reissue projects suffer from their comprehensiveness, presenting a succession of three-minute recordings that were conceived as 78 rpm singles to be heard a side or two at time. That is not a problem with this Ellington set. There is remarkable variety in these 12 hours of music, and alternate takes are wisely saved for the ends of discs rather than following the master takes.

In addition to writing the notes, Steven Lasker, with Scott Wenzel, produced the reissue and did the restoration that presents this music from seven decades ago in sound that is bright and fresh. It has details that have gone unheard in previous reissues. Lasker has won awards for this kind of work. He deserves another one.

Is this essential Ellington? It is, if you think Ellington is essential.

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  1. Rob D says

    Thank you for this wonderful review. I hope to pick up this set when I have saved enough pennies to do so! I think early Ellington is the stuff I love most.