Monday, May 14, 2007

The Duke Box



[Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club, 1943. Photograph by Gordon Parks. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.]

The Duke Box: Duke Ellington in the Forties
(8 CDs, Storyville Records, 2006)

The Duke Box collects more than eight hours of live recordings of the Ellington band, 1940-49. At least some of the music has been issued before (I have about half the contents on LPs), but it's a pleasure to find it all here, under one roof in a sturdy new house.

In the 1940s, recorded music was still bound by the confines of the 78 rpm disc. So the first thing to note about The Duke Box is the simple excitement of hearing the Ellington band stretch out in performances that range well beyond three-minute mark: a six-minute-long "Black and Tan Fantasy," an almost seven-minute-long "Across the Track Blues," an eight-minute-plus arrangement of "Take the A Train." Extended Ellington performances -- "Creole Rhapsody," "Hot and Bothered," "Reminiscing in Tempo" -- were already available on disk, of course, but they were recordings in parts, split up across the sides of one or more 78s.

The second thing to note about these recordings might be the variety of their circumstances: radio broadcasts from nightclubs in Boston (the Southland Café), New York (the Hurricane, the New Zanzibar) and Los Angeles (the Hollywood Empire); studio performances for broadcast to British audiences and American military personnel; concert recordings from New York (Carnegie Hall), Washington, D.C. (the Howard Theatre), and military bases in Maryland and Virginia; and a private recording from a ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota.

The name Fargo has magical properties for an Ellington fan -- on November 7, 1940, this northern city's Crystal Ballroom was the site of a spectacular Ellington performance that happened to be recorded by two young fans, Dick Burris and Jack Towers. The 2.5 hours of music captured in Fargo are stuff of legend, music by one of Ellington's greatest bands, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, with bassist Jimmy Blanton (who permanently changed the role of the bass as a time-keeping instrument) and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The Fargo recording has been available for some time now -- I bought the LPs when they were first issued by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1978. But the newly remastered music may now be heard with greater clarity, making the contrast between this live performance and the band's 1940 studio work even more dramatic. Listening to the Fargo CDs, it's as if one's ears have just popped: everything that was murky and muted has suddenly become clear. I make this analogy as someone who in fact loves the warmth of Ellington's 1940 studio recordings. But the sound of the band in Fargo is extraordinary, with an energy and excitement that the studio recordings simply do not convey. The final full-length tune from Fargo, an all-out "St. Louis Blues," stands as one of the most exciting moments in all of Ellington's music: Barney Bigard's clarinet solo, Ivie Anderson's vocal (including a call-and-response chorus with the band), Webster's tenor, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton's trombone (quoting "Whistle While You Work"!), and an ensemble ending that dips into "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Rhapsody in Blue."

Nothing else here is quite as astonishing as Fargo, but every disc has many great moments and sound that is always at least adequate, and sometimes excellent. Among the highlights: a deft "Tootin' through the Roof" with Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, Harry Carney's swampy bass clarinet and Betty Roche's cool vocal on "I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I Got," Johnny Hodges' alto on "Laura," Harold Baker's trumpet on "Star Dust," and Joe Nanton's solo on the Carnegie Hall "Black and Tan Fantasy." Nanton contributed a distinctive solo to the first recordings of "Black and Tan" in 1927, a solo which had long since become an integral element of the piece. Stepping forward to make his statement in 1943, he does not simply reproduce the now-familiar solo, as Ellingtonians so often did. Instead, he seems to be intent on producing the greatest solo of his life.

The only performances in The Duke Box that leave me less than sent are some of those from a 1949 radio broadcast. Here the Ellington band seems to have stepped into The Future, The World of Tomorrow, where everything is louder, faster, and dripping with chrome (or, more accurately, brass). One number is performed, as the announcer puts it, "1949-style." "With fins," I'd say, though cars didn't yet have them. Even here though the beauty of Ellington's music shines through (despite the chrome), as with "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'" and "Cotton Tail."

It's increasingly difficult to get a good sampling of Duke Ellington's music from any source other than a "collector's" label. The Duke Box offers a great sampling of Ellingtonia, for $9 a disc via Amazon. Thank you, Storyville!

The Duke Box (Amazon.com)
Storyville Records
The Duke Was Here (The story of the Fargo recording, from NDSU Magazine)

A related post
Ellington for beginners (What to listen to first)

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