Sunday Aug 25

Ballads and Blues

This is a very special Duke Ellington CD.

Ellington was a man of many parts. He regularly introduced himself as "the piano player" and he was pleased with his role as "the world's greatest listener." (I have no doubt that many of the "We've had a request to play" announcements were self-referential.) On this CD we get to hear Ellington in both those roles along with Ellington the composer. And it offers an extra treat in the form of Ellington the producer.

The 20 tracks on Blues and Ballads are selections from 10 CD wave of "private recordings" by Ellington the burst on the jazz world in the late 1980s.

In this case "private recording" means that Ellington took personal charge of what used to be called A&R, "Artists and Repertoire." He gathered the musicians, selected (or wrote) the music to be played, booked the studio, and supervised the recording process.

Making a private recording is not really an extranvagance compared to making recordings under the aegis of a recording company which is likely to charge off everything from snacks during the session to sidemen's salaries against the leader's royalties.

So here's a sample what Ellington wanted to hear and wanted to play when he took various assemblages into various studios at various times over the course of various years.

The years involved here range from 1956 to 1968 and the instrumentalists are the Ellington stalwarts from that period, but mostly not assembled into full orchestra settings. For instance, the last track, a Milt Grayson vocal on "Paris Blues," the instrumental forces include full trombone, sax, and rhythm sections but only Ray Nance as the trumpet "section" (and he's probably playing cornet). Billy Strayhorn takes over the keyboard for this track, too. Ellington is listed as playing piano on all other tracks with Strayhorn joining in on a few.

The personnel listing is somewhat unreliable, however. If it's important to you (and it usually is to me) to confirm who you may be hearing on each track, you're well off consulting Billy Vera's notes and creating your own track-by-track personnel listings.

The compositions range from the familiar ("In a Sentimental Mood," "Mood Indigo," "Jeep's Blues") to those that clearly were created on the spot ("Rhythm Section Blues," "Meditation," "Blues a la Willie Cook"). Even the warhorses are often tricked out in new garb. "Jeep's Blues," for instance, features Ray Nance rather than Johnny Hodges.

The recorded sound varies but is usually quite good. Throughout his recording career, Ellington insisted that engineers make records worthy of the world's greatest listener.

Vera mentions in his notes that one of the producers asked him "if he felt the music here had real value or was only of interest to Ellington completists." Vera's answer was kinder than the question deserved.. It was also absolutely accurate: "If there's any musical artist whose music deserves to be available in toto, it is Duke Ellington."

CAVEAT:  This 2000 production has apparently turned into a collector's item and is priced accordingly on Amazon with no listings at all on eBay at this writing.  It substantiates my contention that almost everything is a limited edition.