These four Duke Ellington compositions were originally devised as large-scale pieces, even if not written for a symphony orchestra. Ellington wrote several such ambitious works, particularly for the concerts which his orchestra gave at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s.
Ellington devised Three Black Kings in 1973 for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but it was only in the form of a short score when Duke died a year later. It was completed by Duke's son, Mercer Ellington. Jimmy Heath's wailing soprano saxophone contributes strongly to the mood of the piece.
New World A-Comin' was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and it features Sir Roland Hanna in what is basically a piano concerto. The string arrangement obscures the jazz feeling, although Hanna is allowed at improvise the cadenza towards the end.
Harlem is one of Ellington's finest works: a piece that vividly evokes the predominantly Black area of New York City. This is the most successful track on the album, probably because of the strength of Ellington's original writing, although the interpretation here cannot match the excitement of the Duke's own recordings of the piece.
This album was originally released in 1989 by MusicMasters. The sound quality and balance are good, and I wish I liked this CD more. Yet none of the performances can bear comparison with the sound of the actual Duke Ellington Orchestra. Nevertheless, this recording will be valuable if it leads listeners to gain an inkling of Ellington's genius. It would be very satisfying if it makes lovers of "classical" music try listening to the Ellington band and realise that he was a serious composer of immense stature and unmatched invention.
Tony Augarde, Musicweb-international.com