Duke Ellington – Big Bands Live: Duke Ellington – Jazzhaus/ SWR Music

by | Dec 16, 2012 | Jazz CD Reviews

Duke Ellington – Big Bands Live: Duke Ellington – Jazzhaus/SWR Music 101703, 73:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
(Duke Ellington – piano, arrangements; Cootie Williams – trumpet; Herbie Jones – trumpet; Mercer Ellington – trumpet; Paul Gonsalves – tenor saxophone; Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone; Harry Carney – baritone saxophone, clarinet; Russell Procope – clarinet, alto saxophone; Jimmy Hamilton – clarinet, tenor saxophone; Chuck Conners – trombone; Lawrence Brown – trombone; Buster Cooper – trombone; John Lamb – bass; Rufus Jones – drums)
By 1967, rock music had dominated the culture and big band projects were nearly extinct. Larger ensembles were more likely to be found in r&b acts like Ray Charles or James Brown. The golden era of cool jazz and bossa nova was winding down. But that didn’t stop Duke Ellington. The legendary composer and big band leader maintained his stature as the standard bearer for this music. Between the years 1960-1967, he released thirty-five albums, including original compositions and adaptations of classical pieces.
Jazzhaus Records has released a re-mastered live recording titled Big Bands: Duke Ellington Orchestra. Recorded in Stuttgart (March, 1967), this marks the debut in this series (along with the 1959 Benny Goodman Orchestra concert). Accompanied by a 14 piece ensemble, Ellington and company breeze through a set of lesser-known material, mostly originals (with three compositions by Billy Strayhorn). This is a terrific recording, notable for cohesive arrangements and exemplary instrumentation. In a tease, the band opens with a minute of “Take The “A” Train”. Just the familiarity of the lyrical refrain is endearing. They follow up with another Strayhorn tune, “Johnny Come Lately”. Ellington opens with his trademark elegant, crisp piano runs as the band joins in with intricate melody and counterpoint. With bluesy nuance, “Swamp Goo” showcases clarinetist Russell Procope on a fluid solo. The group adds some muscle to the piece while Ellington’s understated piano is flawless. (Note; Ellington identifies the soloists at the end of each cut). Shifting to a Latin-infused tempo, “Knob Hill” features Paul Gonsalves on tenor saxophone. The dynamic between soloist and band is excellent and Ellington (whose piano lines are impeccable), John Lamb (bass) and Rufus Jones constitute a formidable rhythm section.
This rhythm trio kicks off “Eggo” and segues effortlessly into the hefty group arrangement. Lamb delivers a challenging solo on bowed bass, and Harry Carney creates atmosphere with his rumbling baritone saxophone. On a traditional large ensemble opus (“Rue Bleue”), Lawrence Brown gets nasty on trombone. This is a gifted big band that can handle a wide spectrum of styles from deliberate precision (“A Chromatic Love Affair”) to pure swing (“Salome” which has a piercing solo by trumpeter Cat Anderson). Another veteran, Cootie Williams, is stunning on “Tutti For Cootie” as the swirling, dense frames the slow-burning trumpet flourishes. Longtime collaborator Johnny Hodges displays a velvet touch on Strayhorn’s “Freakish Lights”.
Big Bands Live: Duke Ellington Orchestra is a must for big band fans…or any music fans. It has superior musicianship, inventive arrangements and is exciting to hear, over and over. Apparently, there are three thousand hours of unissued similar recordings that have never been released. Let’s hear them!
TrackList: Take The “A” Train; Johnny Come Lately; Swamp Goo; Knob Hill; Eggo; La Plus Belle Africane; Rue Bleue; A Chromatic Love Affair; Salome; The Shepherd; Tutti For Cootie; Freakish Lights; Kixx
—Robbie Gerson

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