These are four Ellington symphonic compositions, uniquely collected together on this disc, which was originally released in 1989 on the MusicMasters label. Nimbus licensed it for reissue, so it lacks the Ambisonic surround designation of most of the other Nimbus CDs.
All these works concern Ellington’s African-American heritage, putting it in a more symphonic guise than his many big band works. The Black, Brown and Beige Suite is of course the best known of the four. This orchestra by conductor Peress is actually much shorter than the complete suite available on a number of CDs, running only 18 minutes. The main theme here is perhaps one of the most lyrical of any Ellington ever wrote – Come Sunday. Frank Wess is heard on alto sax in the three selections from Black, Brown and Beige.
The three black kings are Balthazaar of the Magi, King Solomon, and Martin Luther King. This suite was intended originally for the Dance Theater of Harlem; after Ellington’s death it was scored by Luther Henderson for jazz band and symphony orchestra. The MLK section is in gospel music style. Also orchestrated by Peress from Ellington’s original band score is New World A-Comin’ for piano solo and orchestra. It features Sir Roland Hanna at the piano and Stephen Hart on clarinet. The concluding Harlem – orchestrated by both Peress and Henderson – seems to have been a commission from Toscanini, to be part of a Portrait of New York Suite. It was conducted by Don Gillis with the Symphony of the Air a year after Toscanini’s death. It is similar to Black, Brown and Beige but more integrated as a quarter-hour work, rather than individual sections. The second half is built on a street funeral dirge a la New Orleans. This performance features Jon Faddis on trumpet and Ron Carter on doublebass. Some of these Ellington works were recorded by Erich Kunzel for Telarc, but though the sonics are not quite as good, this version on Nimbus sounds more authentic and probably closer to the Duke’s original intent.
– John Sunier