"Much of the material presented here is unfamiliar..."
Duke Ellington was one of the twentieth century’s great composers, bandleader, performer, and pianist. He created an orchestra that had a distinct musical identity and he travelled the world over, showcasing his music despite changes in personnel and musical styles.
This 1948 concert at Cornell University was recorded by Ellington himself, since at the time there was an American Federation of Musicians ban on studio recordings. Much of the material presented here is unfamiliar and ultimately did not remain in the Ellington orchestra book. However the band is interesting given this was the last period when Ben Webster was with Ellington, as he left in the spring of 1949.
CD1 First Set: After the compulsory Star Spangled Banner, the band opens with Lady of the Lavender Mist which has some beautiful reed section playing and then segues into Suddenly It Jumped with a terrific muted trumpet solo by Shorty Baker, and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. Ellington and his alter ego Billy Strayhorn collaborated on many extended works, three of which are showcased here. Namely Reminiscing In Tempo, The Symphomaniac Pts.1 and 2 and the longest: The Tattooed Bride. This latter piece is probably the most engaging, with some especially strong trumpet work by Shorty Baker and the ever reliable Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. One cannot under-estimate the contributions that these two players made to the band. In between these lengthy sections, there are three undistinguished vocals by Kay Davis on Creole Love Call, Don’t Blame Me, and Lover Man. On the remaining tracks, of note is Harry Carney’s pensive baritone sax playing in Paradise and Al Killian on You Oughta where he develops some upper register improvisations.
CD2 Second Set, offers a wide range of short themed pieces designed to feature individual members of the band or a particular section. Starting off with Manhattan Murals which is more or less a riff on Take The A Train, there follows Hy’a Sue which has solid rocking beat provided by bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Sonny Greer supporting the solo work of Tyree Glenn on trombone and Jimmy Hamilton tenor sax. Also worthy of mention is the interesting bass clarinet of Harry Carney on the Latin-flavoured Fantazm and the brass section on the up-tempo Tootin’ Through the Roof. Two cuts which deserve particular mention are firstly, Brown Betty which provides Johnny Hodges an opportunity to confirm his luscious unwavering tone on the alto sax and then Ben Webster who turns the bop anthem How High The Moon into a tour de force of tenor sax playing. Al Hibbler, a vocalist who had been with Ellington for six years and had a rather dramatic and idiosyncratic style, received a warm reception for three songs starting with Don’t Be So Mean to Baby, then Lover Come Back to Me and finally It’s Monday Every Day. The disc concludes with a medley of Ellington’s great hits with the Duke’s elegant piano in the foreground and then Tyree Glenn’s performance on vibraphone of Limehouse Blues.
Finally, Nimbus has released a well-engineered package given the source recording, along with very detailed liner notes. However only true Ellington devotees will want to add this to their collection, given the depth and breadth of the readily available Ellington discography.
Pierre Giroux, Musicweb-international.com