A great many things might be implied by the titling of Duke Ellington's thrice released and cherished album "Ellington Uptown," (Columbia) and the concept of something being "classy" is only one of those possibilities. Surely, Ellington was the grand conductor and maestro of the modern orchestral band, acknowledging his own favorite composers as Gershwin, Stravinsky, Debussy and Respighi-a cultural synthesis of the modern and the classical traditions if there ever was one. And so, the images of being "uptown," conjured by the subject matter of the selected pieces and the energy and thoughtful reflection involved in the bustle of the metropolis are all here, and all orchestrated with the personality and character of a symphonic journey and original masterpiece.
The organization of this CD is important: previous releases have both added and dropped material, but this is an entire view of "Ellington Uptown," resplendent as a complete artistic vision. The album opens with "Skin Deep," a crowd pleasing and often vigorous arrangement where the composer is also the drummer, and Louis Bellson's extended drum solo is something like the remarkable stuff of Ellington live shows. The following track is "The Mooche," a much earlier work by Ellington, which is here refined and distilled with a rousing arrangement that is dedicated wholly to its original flavor, but effortlessly blends with the rest of the unfolding tapestry. The reworking of "Take the `A' Train" is also a fascinating piece of art, moving from jazzy instrumental to bop inspired vocals with Betty Roche. There are great percussive uses of the Hi-Fi recording techniques, and the shifts in mood and tempo will make the listener feel like they are at the train station. The next idea personified with music is "A Tone Parallel to Harlem," at the time a more modern Ellington composition, and in the opinion of some the summation of where his current musical influences were taking him. And so, in evaluating the progression of recordings, it is subjectively implied that the move uptown is a journey through art and imagination and style. There are a lot of stylistic landscapes to cross before the album's completion. The glorious "Perdido" allows many of the Ellington Band's most celebrated soloists to spotlight.
The bonus material allows the viewpoint of different ideas. "I Like the Sunrise" is meant to instill the emotions of those who were leaving the United States to resettle in Africa, beaten down by slavery but inspired by hope for freedom. The energy takes a dive into reflection as the next tracks move into focus. This is the famous "Controversial Suite." Here the Duke addresses the conflict between traditionalists and progressive jazz enthusiasts. Without siding, the Duke uses the three pieces to emote the ideas of the music. The answer, the Duke would seem to say, is to express art (and to show that older musicians can hang with the nouveau). The final five tracks are the wonderfully mastered "Liberian Suite," in which the movements are numbered instead of named. This is the first Ellington piece of music to follow the formal suite form, as well as being his second commercially released album. The concepts of freedom and the conflict of racism and the desire for betterment blend in this tribute to the nation of Liberia.
Whether guiding the listener through a deeply personal musical journey by way of uptown travel, reflecting on the progression of musical styles, or adding his thought and prayers to the furthering of the dreams of men who want freedom from oppression, the Duke is an artist. The pictures he paints are to fill the heart and the mind, and the class and truth of his work is timeless.