Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges – Back To Back – Verve MGVS-6055 (1959)/ Speakers Corner Records (2007) 180-gram stereo audiophile vinyl ****:
(Duke Ellington – piano; Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone; Harry “Sweets” Edison – trumpet; Les Spann – guitar; Al Hall – bass; Sam Jones – bass; Jo Jones – drums
In February of 1959, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges decided to collaborate. The result was not a heavily arranged big band project, but a blues record. In place of an orchestra, there was a quintet, including Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet. An unusual feature is Ellington in the role of sideman, in essence backing Hodges (Note: there are many rumors over the tension in this session). Never the less, the ensemble weaves through a catalogue of tunes (only one Ellington piece). A subsequent LP, Side By Side was released the same year.
The album opens (“Wabash Blues”) with a Latin flair, before the combo morphs into medium tempo blues groove. Hodges’ alto saxophone lines are fluid and expressive. Edison offers a clear, vibrato-free solo before the jam comes full circle, closing with the rhythmic intro. Several of the tracks have a New Orleans vibe. “Basin Street Blues” has Hodges and Edison switching leads and solos. With restrained expression, this standard still has grittiness. Ellington executes a tasteful solo with some nice rolls. He and Basie have been at the vanguard of economical, less ostentatious technique. The low-key approach is apparent on “Weary Blues”. After a jazzy chord progression, the song moves comfortably into slower blues groove. Saxophone and trumpet combine in harmonic unison, before Edison cuts loose on a sultry riff. Hodges expression is very melodic. More upbeat, “Royal Garden Blues” approximates Dixieland ambiance with a walking bass and drum fills.
Of course, homage to W.C. Handy can be found on three songs. “Beale Street Blues” has a nice low boil with muted trumpet and saxophone fluidity. Les Spann showcases some of his influential guitar licks.”St. Louis Blues” benefits from the chemistry between Hodges and Edison, as they alternate frequently. Ellington offers a muscular solo, yet maintains subtlety. The crescendo in the last refrain hints at the big band origins of these players. With pensive solitude, “Loveless Love” completes the Handy trilogy. Hodges’ stalwart technique is centered by the rhythm section. This is a memorable quintet.
Speakers Corners have done a superior job in re-mastering this audiophile vinyl. Stereo separation is flawless, never muddled. The clarity and tonal quality of the instruments is pristine. Ellington’s rumbling lower register piano has no distortion. Hodges’ saxophone is rich and soothing. Even the muted trumpet of Edison rises above some of the customary shrillness of early stereo recordings. Back To Back represents a hip departure from big band fare. [Also nice to have it in stereo; the originals and some of the reissues available are only mono…Ed.]
Side 1: Wabash Blues; Basin Street Blues; Beale Street Blues
Side 2: Weary Blues; St. Louis Blues; Loveless Love; Garden Blues
A lesser known jazz pioneer gets a re-mastered vinyl upgrade.