Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: The Duke Box 2

Duke Ellington. The Duke Box 2. 7 CDs + 1 DVD. Storyville Records. 2016.

Before I sat down to write about The Duke Box 2, I took count of my Ellington recordings: roughly 130 LPs and 120 CDs. Had I taken count before ordering this Storyville release, I might have had to ask whether I really need more Ellington recordings. But I didn’t take count. I’m always in the mood for more Ellington.

The Duke Box 2 contains 142 recordings made between 1952 and 1972, ranging in length from the fanfare-ish fragment “Cross Climax” (0:27) to the piano piece “Nagoya” (8:10). Three discs collect live recordings: radio broadcasts from Birdland (1952) and concert performances in Munich (1958) and Stockholm (1963). Four discs contain 1966–1972 studio performances from what Ellington called “the stockpile,” recordings made at his expense and which remained unreleased in his lifetime. The live recordings are generally of well-known material, sometimes given new form or coloring. The stockpile recordings are where the greater surprises are to be found.

The Birdland broadcasts give us the Ellington band not long after a grievous loss: Johnny Hodges (alto) left in 1951 to form his own small group, taking Lawrence Brown (trombone) and Sonny Greer (drums) with him. Ellington promptly hired three musicians away from the Harry James band: Willie Smith (alto), Juan Tizol (valve trombone), and Louis Bellson (drums). Only Tizol is present here. But you can’t tell from listening that anything might be wrong: the band is in finest of fettles. Highlights include “Monologue,” with Ellington narrating a cautionary love-fable over a clarinet trio (followed by an enthusiastic “Yes, baby!” from a woman in the audience), and two versions of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” with Betty Roché’s hip vocal, full of scat, lyric quotations, and pop-culture appropriations. (“Who’s got the Toni?” echoes this advertising campaign.) These broadcasts marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ellington’s opening at the Cotton Club in 1927 — and how he must have hated that reminder of time’s passing. No wonder that he has the band follow “The Mooche” with Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Among the highlights of the Munich and Stockholm recordings: the boppish dexterity of Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Clark Terry in “Newport Up,” an introspective Hodges solo in a quiet “Jeep’s Blues,” and energetic performances from Ray Nance on “Just Squeeze Me” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Nance came by the nickname “Floorshow” honestly.

“And now” (to use an Ellington phrase): recordings from the stockpile. Some of its treasures are vehicles for soloists: “The Shepherd,” a fierce performance by Cootie Williams; “Chromatic Love Affair,” whose seductive half-step-by-half-step melody serves as a showpiece for Harry Carney’s tone and dynamic range; “Second Line,” with Russell Procope’s woody clarinet leading the parade; “Checkered Hat,” Norris Turney’s alto homage to Hodges. Some treasures are samples of orchestral texture: “Amta,” in 5/4, suggests both the exotica of The Far East Suite and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “little instruments.” “Something,” a section of The Goutelas Suite, sounds luminous and urbane. The seven sections of the Togo Brava Suite (only four of which appeared on The London Concert LP) give us Ellington mostly in the chant and groove mode of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. The greatest orchestral surprises might be found in the incidental music for The Jaywalker, a parable for the theater by the British actress Barbara Waring. (The brief description in Brian Priestly’s liner notes makes me think of Myles Connolly’s novel Mr. Blue.) Here we have many instrumental suggestions of traffic in all directions, and supplemental percussion from Emmanuel Abdul-Rahim’s congas. And the Jaywalker piece “Mac” turns out to be an orchestral version of “T. G. T. T.,” a piece for piano and voice from the Second Sacred Concert. Who knew there was an orchestral version?

For me, the most valuable material in the Box is on CD 4: sixteen recordings of Ellington at the piano, thirteen of them unaccompanied, recorded between 1961 and 1971. “Meditation” from the Second Sacred Concert is a solemn, deliberate statement, markedly different from the quick run-through that the piece sometimes received in live performance. An untitled and almost entirely one-chord blues anticipates by more than a decade the “Fragmented Suite for Piano and Bass” that Ellington recorded with Ray Brown on This One’s for Blanton. Piano versions of the material that became The River: A Ballet Suite (choreography by Alvin Ailey) give us Ellington the impressionist — and Ellington the procrastinator, composing at the last possible minute. And then there’s “Nagoya,” with Ellington exploring themes that would emerge in The Far East Suite’s “Ad Lib on Nippon.”

An aside: the only disappointing performances here are those in which Ellington tries to be groovy, happening, hip, with it. Genuine lyrics, from “There’s a Place”: “Peace, love, peace, love, peace, love, freedom now.” Yow. Ellington of all people should have known that those who are cool need not try to be cool. It just gets in the way.

The DVD in this Box has a fairly improbable origin: in 1962 the Ellington band was filmed, playing to its own pre-recorded performances, for a Goodyear Tire & Rubber promotion. The music is, of course, strangely detached from the visual image, but it’s a treat nonetheless to see the band working hard to lip-sync and everything else-sync.

I have only one criticism of this release: a number of glaring typographical errors mar the presentation: “Chekered Hat” and “The Shephard,” for instance. And the song “I’m Afraid (Of Loving You Too Much)” is identified in the track listing as “Duke Ellington.” Note to Storyville: Will Proofread for More Ellington.

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)
The Duke Box (My review of Storyville’s 2006 release)

[Six of the seven CDs in The Duke Box 2 are also individual Storyville releases: Duke Ellington at Birdland, The Duke in Munich, The Piano Player, The Jaywalker, New York, New York, and Togo Brava Suite. CD no. 3, Duke Ellington at Grøna Lund Tivoli, Stockholm is previously unreleased. “Those who are cool need not try to be cool”: I made that up, but it sounds to me like something Ellington could have said.]

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