Duke Ellington – Ellington At Newport – Columbia / Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab – vinyl

Duke Ellington – Ellington At Newport – Columbia CL 934 (1956)/ Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MOFI 1-035/2015 – 1 mono vinyl, 43:53 *****:

(Duke Ellington – piano, arrangements; John Willie Cook – trumpet; Harry Carney – baritone saxophone; Paul Gonsalves – tenor saxophone; Jimmy Grissom – voice; Jimmy Hamilton – clarinet; Quentin Jackson – trombone; Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone; William “Cat” Anderson – trumpet; Ray Nance – trumpet; John Sanders – trombone; Clark Terry – trumpet; Russell Procope – alto saxophone, clarinet; James Woode – bass; Britt Woodman – trombone; Butter Jackson – trombone; Sam Woodyard – drums)

It is impossible to imagine Duke Ellington having to make a comeback. But in 1956, he found himself in that unenviable position as he prepared for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Incredibly Ellington’s band didn’t have a record deal at the time. Presumably, he was supporting the effort with his royalties. So the jazz icon was slotted to close the prestigious concert. In keeping with his unheralded brilliance, he produced new material and as the legend goes, blew the crowd away.

Only a musician of Ellington’s stature would be capable of composing (with Billy Strayhorn) a piece for the Festival, and getting it down in a two week rehearsal. But that’s what happened with ”Newport Jazz Festival Suite”. After Duke addresses the crowd, the first “movement” begins. “Festival Junction” opens with a gorgeous melody played by clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton. Ellington joins in with sparse blues chords. Then the orchestra evokes a funky swing groove. Horn counterpoints and orchestral swells inhabit this jam. A barrage of soloists (trumpet/ Willie Cook and Cat Anderson), tenor saxophone/Paul Gonsalves, trombone/Britt Woodman and Quentin Jackson, baritone saxophone/Harry Carney), and alto saxophone (Russell Procope) come in furious waves. Ellington has reminded the bop and cool jazz aficionados that tightly arranged numbers with free-flowing instrumentalist are still terrific. As the band leader attempts to thanks the players, he is drowned out by a cheering throng.

“Blues To Be There” appears to be a suite of its own, also with three distinctive sections. Ellington opens with one of his signature moody passages. The blues riffs are simple, yet transformative with chord changes that have a gentle sway. Again Procope excels, this time on clarinet. Ray Nance offers some nasty licks on trumpet. In the next transition, an up-tempo jitterbug electrifies the crowd. Now it’s Clark Terry (trumpet), Gonsalves (tenor) and Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet) delivering smoking riffs, propelled by the thunderous rhythm of drummer Sam Woodyard.  The backing ensemble surrounds the featured players with tightly arranged flourishes. Ellington has a formidable command of the blues idiom, especially on the first track of Side Two, “Jeep’s Blues”. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges contributes saucy runs on alto with Ellington adding concise fills. Duke can be heard exhorting the troops on the down and dirty opus. The band accents are quintessential.

The album concludes with “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”, described as a 1938 piece. Ellington begins with muscular chords before a nimble solo. Then the orchestra follows (in explosive intensity) with their version of a call and response.  Nance’s muted trumpet precedes what Ellington describes as an “interlude”. While Paul Gonsalves has never been compared to tenors like Coltrane, Rollins of Hawkins, he played his way into jazz lore. With stupefying energy, he blows a 17-minute solo (27 choruses). This is high energy jump swing and he never lets up. Finally Duke steps in with his vibrant piano. This music is not big band nostalgia, but creative up-tempo heat with a variety of influences. A screeching trumpet and group dynamism throw the Newport Jazz Festival into pandemonium. It remains one of the greatest live performances of all time.

Mobile Fidelity has done an outstanding job re-mastering this monaural recording. The orchestra swells are prominent and the quieter piano lines are clear and precise. The volumes of the trumpets, clarinets and saxophone are mixed well and have minimal shrillness. George Avakian’s anecdotal liner notes (especially the back story of drummer Jo Jones) puts the listener backstage. Ellington At Newport is a jazz masterpiece! (Note; There are other versions of this album with additional material)

TrackList:

Side One: Newport Jazz Festival Suite: Festival Junction; Blues To Be Here; Newport Up

Side Two: Jeep’s Blues; Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue

–Robbie Gerson

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