Documentation is full and extensive and the sound is first class.
From the brief few words welcoming the Ellington band to London in February 1964 – spoken unmistakably by Steve Race – we are in for an exciting aural ride. We are also, so far as I’m aware, in for an audio representation of the Jazz 625 filmed-for-broadcast concert that Ellington gave for the BBC, though this is not mentioned in the booklet. A number of these TV programmes were shown again many years ago and then once again, more recently, this time mucked about with the original presenters excised and trendy new ‘talking heads’ parachuted in; as the originals were in black and white and the new presenters in colour it looked spectacularly foolish. Since then DVD reissues have followed though I can’t confirm whether the original versions were used or the silly modish ‘replacements’. In any case you can supplement your audio experience with the visual experience of seeing the band as well as hearing them in other formats. The second London concert in this double CD set was recorded the previous year and not for Jazz 625.
The band was in especially fine form for the 625 session – once past Duke’s regular corny welcoming lines (‘We love you madly’ and ‘…you’re so hip…we don’t dare!’ for those unfamiliar with Ducal style). There are some blazing trumpets in Perdido in a strong arrangement and Cootie Williams glowers and lowers in Caravan. Hodges comes on like double cream in Isfahan, a beautiful performance and Duke’s descriptive verbal introduction to Harlem is well worth a listen in itself, let alone the shifting patterns of this tone parallel. Let’s be charitable and pass over, yet again, Ellington’s bizarre taste in vocalists – Ernie Shepard murders Take the "A" Train unforgivably. The second London concert features the same band members and also Ray Nance’s violin as well. Jimmy Hamilton excels on his clarinet solo on C Jam Blues but another horrendous vocalist, Milt Grayson, indulges his quasi-operatic lungs in a losing battle with Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Gonsalves sounds gloriously unstale in his standby Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
The second disc is devoted to a May 1964 concert at the Wollman Auditorium, Columbia University, New York, given by Duke and his trio – bassist Peck Morrison and Sam Woodyard. Ellington laces established skills and cheeky stride in Caravan. Skillipoop is mainly Woodyard and Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall is a droll ‘poem’ and there’s an excellent blues medley. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith makes a valued appearance for Carolina Shout and Billy Strayhorn for Tonk and Things Ain't What They Used To Be. Ellington gets more wistful it seems as the concert develops and a succession of melancholically tinged solos – introspective, impressionist, affecting - ends the recital. Ellington always denied being a pianist, always modestly claiming only to be ‘a piano player’. Some piano player!
Documentation is full and extensive and the sound is first class.
Jonathan Woolf, Musicweb-international.com
Duke Ellington the bandleader and the pianist...brilliant and ground-breaking in both roles
I saw Duke Ellington's orchestra in London in the 1960s and felt my heart leap up when the curtains rose on a band that included a front line of five superb reedmen: Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney. Each one had his own unique style and they typified how Duke Ellington chose his musicians for their individuality rather than putting a band together from a homogeneous crowd of musicians.
The Ellingtonian strengths are well in evidence on this double album - in two different ways. The first CD catches the full Ellington band in action in London in 1963 and 1964. The second CD has the Duke leading a trio in New York in May 1964, with two very significant guests making brief appearances.
The first CD contains many oft-recorded Ducal numbers but they all sound fresh because of Ellington's ability to vary the arrangements and let the soloing musicians do their own thing. From its very start it is uplifting, with that familiar signature tune - Take the "A" Train - introduced by the BBC's Steve Race. Perdido is taken at an exhilarating fast tempo, with solos from Jimmy Hamilton's crystal-clear clarinet, Rolf Ericson's beboppish trumpet and Paul Gonsalves' slippery tenor sax. Caravan features trumpeter Cootie Williams, who had recently returned to Duke's orchestra after more than 20 years' absence. Cootie's muted trumpet naughtily transgresses bar-lines before Duke's mischievous piano plays tricks with Sam Woodyard's drumming.
Johnny Hodges is as radiantly lyrical as ever in Isfahan (its first recorded performance). The Opener is a hectic, noisy crowd-rouser which features Gonsalves, Buster Cooper and the unlovely Cat Anderson's trumpet screech. This is followed by one of the album's highlights: a 15-minute version of Harlem, one of Ellington's best extended works. Take the "A" Train is longer than track 1 and has a jocular vocal from bassist Ernie Shepard. Johnny Hodges gets to solo on Mood Indigo, and C Jam Blues gives several band members an opportunity to solo. Don't Get Around Much Anymore is another vocal number - this time with mellow singer Milt Grayson.
Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue naturally focuses on tenorist Paul Gonsalves playing multiple blues choruses. Things quieten down for A Single Petal of a Rose, featuring the Duke at the piano paying a tender tribute to the British queen. The concert ends with Rockin' in Rhythm, preceded (as tradition demanded) by Ellington's piano solo on Kinda Dukish. Thus ends a superb concert, with the Duke clearly relishing the enthusiastic response of the London audience.
As already suggested, the second CD is a different kettle of jazz, but still very palatable. Ellington leads a conventional piano trio and it is refreshing to hear his piano in the foreground, although Sam Woodyard's drums are featured at length in Skillipoop. Duke displays his individualistic piano stgyle, which has his own quiddities as well as being influenced by the stride piano tradition. This tradition is exemplified by Willie "The Lion" Smith making a surprise appearance to play James P. Johnson's Carolina Shout. The Lion stumbles over several notes but his stride spirit lives on.
Other highlights of the New York concert include a blues medley plus Billy Strayhorn guesting on a couple of tracks. After this, Ellington is heard at the piano alone, including a pensive Melancholia, Little African Flower (also known as Fleurette Africaine) and another performance of A Single Petal of a Rose.
This double album is valuable not only because it is by Duke Ellington (dare I say that all his albums are valuable?) but also because it shows two sides of the man: the bandleader and the pianist. He was brilliant and ground-breaking in both roles.
Tony Augarde, Musicweb-international.com