Ellington Orchestral Music

Duke Ellington is known for his jazz band compositions - a body of work spanning over fifty years which indisputably established him as the first among jazz-inspired composers and among the greatest of American composers of all persuasions, or, as the Duke would say, "without category". But there also exists a substantial body of large works: ballets, concerti, tone poems, film scores, even an opéra comique. Starting in 1943, Ellington prepared the first of several annual Carnegie Hall concerts with his own orchestra. For each of these he composed at least one extended work, symphonic in proportion and intention, if not in instrumentation. This recording includes two of these in their symphonic form - Black, Brown & Beige and the piano concerto New World A-Comin’ - as well as two symphonic works not originally written for his jazz band - Harlem, commissioned by the NBC Symphony in 1950, and Les trois rois noirs (Three black kings), commissioned by the Dance Theatre of Harlem.


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1. Black, Brown and Beige Suite

2. Three Black Kings

3. New World A-Comin'

4. Harlem Maurice Peress - Conductor


Frank Wess - Alto sax (track 1)

Richard Chamberlain - Trombone (track 1)

Jimmy Heath - Tenor and soprano saxes (track 2)

Roland Hanna - Piano (track 3) S

tephen Hart - Clarinet (track 3)

Jon Faddis - Trumpet (track 4)

Bill Easley - Clarinet (track 4)

Ron Carter - Bass (track 4)

Butch Miles - Drums (track 4)


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

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