Ellington’s Reprise Recordings Surprisingly Good

Ellington Reprise recordings

DUKE ELLINGTON: THE REPRISE STUDIO RECORDINGS / 101 tracks recorded between November 1962 and April 1965. Collective personnel includes Cootie Williams, Roy Burrowes, Cat Anderson, Herbie Jones, tp; Ray Nance, tp/vln; Rolf Ericson, Mercer Ellington, tp/fl-hn; Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, tb; Chuck Connors, bs-tb; Jimmy Hamilton, cl/t-sax; Russell Procope, cl/a-sax; Johnny Hodges, a-sax; Paul Gonsalves, t-sax; Harry Carney, cl/bar-sax/a-sax/bs-cl; Ellington, pn; Ernie Shepard, Major Holley, Peck Morrison, John Lamb, bs; Sam Woodyard, dm; Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Teatro alla Scala, Milan Symphony Orchestra / Warner Jazz 603497982615

Duke Ellington’s work with Reprise, the label founded by Frank Sinatra because he felt that the major labels squelched artistic freedom, is not too well known except for a few sessions. This massive 5-CD set covering the bulk (but not all) of Ellington’s Reprise recordings runs 101 tracks and a wide gamut of material, from covers of other bands’ big hits and/or theme songs to contemporary pop tunes including two by The Beatles and an album of tunes from Mary Poppins. I have no room, unfortunately, to list all the material presented here or the full discographical information, but happily you can find all of this online for free here. It was originally issued by Mosaic Records as a limited edition on MD5-193 in 1999 and has long been out of print. I’m not sure if its reissue here by Warner Jazz is a harbinger of other out-of-print Mosaic releases to come, but if so I hope that they include the original booklets or facsimiles thereof. Since I reviewed this one via downloads, I have no idea what the hard copy includes.

The two Reprise albums omitted from this set both featured singers but were very different in scope and purpose. The more famous one was Francis A. & Edward K., an album on which the Ellington band acted merely as backdrop for a dozen Sinatra ballads like “All I Need is the Girl,” “Sunny,” “I Like the Sunrise,” “Indian Summer” and “Follow Me.” In the latter, Ellington on piano with a rhythm section and three French horns, arranged deftly by Billy Strayhorn, interacted with one of the greatest jazz singers who ever lived, Alice Babs. It’s particularly galling that the Babs album (Serenade to Sweden) isn’t here as it has never been available in the U.S., not on LP and not on CD. For those who forget, the Ellington-Louis Armstrong recordings were made for Roulette and the Ellington-Coleman Hawkins and Ellington-John Coltrane LPs were made for Impulse!, not Reprise.

The problem with a band like Ellington’s, which was as much an entertainment and dance orchestra as a purely jazz outfit, is that it had not merely an obligation but a financial need to entertain, to play a huge amount of pop tunes in danceable tempos to stay in business. This was even true back in the Cotton Club years, although in that case the band was mostly required to play for floor shows, but the problem grew once the Swing Era started. That was when Duke made the famous statement, “Now I understand…jazz is art, swing is commerce,” but he still managed to include, as Artie Shaw so succinctly put it, “three tunes to pay the rent and one for beauty.” The situation was always exacerbated when Ellington had to make records, because let’s face it, if you’re just recording Such Sweet Thunder or the Afro-Bossa Suite you’re not going to sell that many copies.

Thus this massive collection spans a lot of commercial material and a small portion of unusual and artistic jazz pieces, but there are some tremendous upsides to this. In particular it meant that he was able to finally afford to record some of his most original and ambitious extended works from the 1950s, Harlem and Night Creature, which included the use of full symphony orchestras. He had wanted to record these pieces for some time but had no opportunity from a major label or the finances to bring them to fruition, so perhaps we should look upon the more commercial material here more kindly in context. Were it not for the money he got from his Reprise recordings, he certainly wouldn’t even have been able to make that elusive Alice Babs album.

The string of big band theme songs and/or hits were partially issued in 1962 by Reprise as Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back? and, in 1974, fully issued as a double-LP set on Atlantic, Recollections of the Big Band Era. Since many of these bands and themes have not remained in the public memory, I thought I’d link them for younger readers here: Christopher Columbus—a hit for Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 band; Let’s Get Together—Chick Webb’s Ellington Big Band Eratheme; Goodbye—Benny Goodman’s sign-off theme; Chant of the Weed—Don Redman; I’m Gettin’ Sentimental—Tommy Dorsey; One O’Clock Jump—Count Basie; Tuxedo Junction—Erskine Hawkins’ theme and a hit for Glenn Miller; Ciribiribin—Harry James; It’s a Lonesome Old Town—Ben Bernie; Minnie the Moocher—Cab Calloway; Sentimental Journey—Les Brown’s big hit (but not his theme); When It’s Sleepy Time Down South—Louis Armstrong; For Dancers Only—Jimmie Lunceford’s hit; Rhapsody in Blue—Paul Whiteman; Contrasts—Jimmy Dorsey; Sleep—Fred Waring; Auld Lang Syne—Guy Lombardo; Woodchopper’s Ball—Woody Herman; Artistry in Rhythm—Stan Kenton; Smoke Rings—Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra; Don’t Get Around Much Anymore—a hit for both Ellington (first as Never No Lament in 1940) and Glen Gray (in 1943); The Midnight Sun Will Never Set—Quincy Jones; The Waltz You Saved for Me—Wayne King; Cherokee—Charlie Barnet. It would be easy to dismiss these as space-wasters on this set because of their commercial purpose, but that would do them a grave injustice. Ellington and/or Strayhorn so re-imagined them that they became entirely new works, thanks not only to the looser, stomping beat (Ellington’s orchestra stomped more than it swung) and the excellent solos but also to the unusual voicings, chord positions (check out Goodbye, for instance) and tempo shifts within each piece. There isn’t nearly enough space in this review to discuss the creativity of each arrangement, so all I’ll say is listen and discover for yourself. Even the most trite and uninteresting of them, One O’Clock Jump, Ciribiribin and Sleep, are made to interest the ear and change perceptions, and in such an unusual piece as Don Redman’s Chant of the Weed one hears the arranger’s mind constantly at work, shifting contours and expectations phrase by phrase. Moreover his soloists, particularly Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Ray Nance (listen to his violin solos on Woodchopper’s Ball and Artistry in Rhythm), Lawrence Brown and Paul Gonsavles, are operating at their peak here.

These are followed by the Afro-Bossa Suite, often overlooked by many Ellington fans because it wasn’t issued by RCA Victor of Columbia. There are some wonderful pieces here, particularly the title track (known to Ellington musicians as “the gutbucket Bolero”), Absinthe, Tigress, Bonga and The Eighth Veil. Perhaps the weakest link in the suite is Juan Tizol’s Pyramid, a nice piece originally recorded in 1938 but certainly not a strong one or one that really fits the surrounding material. Oddly enough, though the music is interesting, most of the solos are fairly pedestrian, even Ellington, the lone exception being Ray Nance on violin. It has always bothered me that because Nance only played violin less than half the time, rather than trumpet, he’s almost never brought up as one of the pioneer violinists in jazz. Personally, I prefer his sound and his improvisations far more than Stuff Smith, who is always brought up. Likewise, when people talk about the pioneer of the baritone sax in jazz, Gerry Mulligan’s name is apt to come up most often, but Harry Carney was playing great baritone sax solos with Ellington for 18 years before Mulligan emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s.

And here’s another oddity. When the Afro-Bossa Suite, Night Creature, La Scala She Too Pretty to be Blue and Harlem were first issued on CD by the Discovery label in 1992, all of them were in mono sound, but here they’re all stereo. I’m wondering if Discovery was simply given mono tapes only by Warner Brothers at that time, because a slightly later Warner Jazz CD release (603497985838) is in stereo.

Tracing the history of Harlem is curious and one of the most frustrating chapters in Ellington’s long career. It was commissioned way back in 1950 by Don Gillis, Arturo Toscanini’s assistant with the NBC Symphony, whose own humorous Symphony No. 5 ½ was performed and recorded by the maestro for the benefit of soldiers on V-Discs. It’s unclear whether Gillis or Toscanini was to be the one to premiere it; I say this because, although Gillis would seem the likely one, its premiere kept getting postponed because Toscanini was going through bouts of illness and back pain. Ellington recorded it a few times with just his band but never with full symphony orchestra before this 1963 recording. On the other hand, Gillis also commissioned Night Creature in 1955, by which time Toscanini was retired and his NBC Symphony had been renamed The Symphony of the Air, and this time Gillis managed to premiere it on schedule. If you read Chapter VIII of my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, you will find a detailed description of Night Creature there.

Highlights among the remaining tracks include the “jazz violin session” on which Nance is joined on violin by Stéphane Grappelli and viola by Svend Asmussen, in which the strings rarely play as a section (a rare exception is the unison opening chorus on The Feeling of Jazz) but rather take turns soloing or playing against each other. Bassist Ernie Shepard also gets into the act here, particularly delightful doing a Slam Stewart imitation by humming along with his bass playing on Take the “A” Train.

Many Ellington collectors have little patience and no respect for Duke Ellington Swings Today’s Hits and Duke Ellington Plays “Mary Poppins,” both of which are, of course, included here complete, but taken on their own merits the band plays with surprising life and joy and the soloists are in prime form, particularly on the latter album. To be perfectly honest, I found no loss of quality in these arrangements and performances to those Ellington wrote of pop hits in the 1930s (Rose of the Rio Grande, Three Little Words, Cocktails for Two, Ebony Rhapsody, Chlo-e, When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, Stormy Weather), all of which are considered classics today. What’s the big deal? It’s what he did with the songs, not what the original songwriters wrote, that makes them interesting music. Had Ellington applied this much imagination to the charts he wrote for the album with Sinatra, I think we’d prize it a lot more highly than we do. A perfect example here is the former Sinatra hit Fly Me to the Moon, which jumps and skips at a wonderful pace, the sort of medium tempo which has disappeared from jazz, with an absolutely superb extended solo by Cootie Williams. People is scored in such a manner that it almost sounds like Blue Serge. Perhaps the least remembered tune on this set is So Little Time, and perhaps that’s for the better so we can appreciate the softly floated tenor solo by Paul Gonsalves and the sparse but lovely backdrop even more by not associating it with any particular “hit” version. After the initial theme statement, Wayne Newton’s hit Danke Schoen becomes an uptempo blues romp for Gonsalves, followed by Williams, with the band vamping and interjecting encouraging licks behind them. Johnny Hodges is at his most imaginative on San Francisco.

As for the latter, believe me: any “white bread” American family who bought this album expecting the songs to sound anything like they did in the Mary Poppins movie were in for a shock. I was greatly impressed by the way he turned Feed the Birds into a spiritual, with a lovely muted trombone solo by the great, underrated Lawrence Brown. Buster Cooper, Ellington’s other trombonist of this period, preaches with plunger mute on Let’s Go Fly a Kite. But perhaps the most startling transformation is Step in Time, which sounds as modern in terms of harmony and structure as anything in his oeuvre, complete with edgy, bowed bass at the start and finish.

We end our survey of Ellington’s Reprise years with Concert in the Virgin Islands, which is not a live album at all but a studio recording made after his Virgin Islands tour. Some of this music, to my ears, is about the same as listening to Artie Shaw play his pseudo-exotica from the late 1930s (listen particularly to Virgin Jungle with its clarinet-over-tom-toms), although some of the music is quite interesting, albeit not very Islands-related (like the swinging Fiddler on the Diddle), and we have the good luck to hear a stereo recording of Strayhorn’s 1941 masterpiece, Chelsea Bridge, although in a different arrangement without all of Strayhorn’s unusual timbral blends. We end on two uptempo romps, Barefoot Stomper and Fade Up (a.k.a. Tootie for Cootie).

All in all, then, Ellington’s Reprise recordings are surprisingly good, and not just the more celebrated ones like Afro-Bossa or The Symphonic Ellington. Well worth acquiring!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz


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