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The 1960s left many great jazz musicians out in the cold. As the musical landscape changed,giants likeDuke Ellington found themselves in danger of becoming dinosaurs, both artistically and commercially. While he could keep his band together through constant touring, Ellington was desperate to keep his music fresh, vital and contemporary. So it was that in 1962 the Duke signed to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label after his contract with Columbia expired. Great things were expected; Ellington was installed as A&R man for Reprise's jazz wing, signing artists like Dollar Brand and Bud Powell.
Unfortunately the association lasted less than three years, and Ellington's Reprise output (nine albums in his own right) has largely been critically ignored (even by the man himself). A quick glance at the discography does suggest a certain lack of focus; experiments with strings, early swing recreations, a jazz violin session, Afro-Latin fusions, pop covers and an album of songs from Mary Poppins.
This beautifully packaged 5 CD set gives you the lot. It's a mixed bag, but even at its most bizarre (it's a surreal experience to hear the Duke covering Acker Bilk's "Stranger On The Shore") we're treated to some wonderful playing and arranging.
Best of the bunch is Afro-Bossa, which is one of the handful of Reprise albums that won some critical acclaim. Its richly orchestrated exotica isn't especially Afro or Latin, but extra percussion gives the band a distinctively different method of propulsion as they pick their way through some old and hitherto unrecorded material.
As usual, Ellington and long term partner Billy Strayhorn coax some gorgeous, inventive textures from the band (particularly the brass); the sound of surprise, indeed. It's this gift that makes even the most facile source material from the Ellington '65 and Ellington '66 sessions (eg "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", "Blowin' In The Wind") take on a new life. It's tempting to spot a degree of sarcasm in some of these arrangements (check the somewhat overripe trombone parping on "Feed the Birds" from the Mary Poppins album), but both men treat their material with due care and attention; in fact, maybe with much more than some of it deserves.
Another qualified success is The Symphonic Ellington, a hotchpotch of sessions recorded with such ensembles as the Hamburg Symphony and La Scala Opera orchestras. The best known piece is 'Harlem', dating from 1951, and it's probably the most successful; elsewhere poor recording and a certain stiffness in the orchestral playing turns the whole thing into a bit of a curate's egg.
As you might expect, there are some wonderful solos throughout; Paul Gonsalves almost reclaims Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" from Ben Webster's clutches, while Johnny Hodges displays his usual blues-soaked majesty on alto. The Reprise period marked the return of trumpeter Cootie Williams to the Ellington band alongside Cat Anderson and Ray Nance, and Ellington takes delight in pushing them into the stratosphere or giving rein to their talents for extreme vocal effects.
Though they might not have had the best material to work with, it's such broad sweeps of tonal colour that puts this band in a different league from say, the 60sBasie Orchestra. Capable of switching from a whisper to a scream in a millisecond, this is an agile, powerful beast. One of the great ensembles of our time, and as such, always worth a listen. --Peter Marsh
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