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4.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag for Ellington fans, 13 Jun 2013
This review is from: Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (Audio CD)
This album has long been regarded as a classic pairing of two great giants of 20th century jazz - the Duke Ellington orchestra, unquestionably the best large jazz ensemble of all time, and Ella Fitzgerald, one of the greatest singers jazz ever produced. For the most part, it works successfully enough, and some of the performances e.g. a superlative version of 'All Too Soon' are truly outstanding. However, it's worth entering a couple of significant caveats for the benefit of prospective purchasers. The songs that work best are the ones that combine sensitive ballad interpretation by Ella with great ensemble playing and instrumental solo work by the Ellington orchestra. 'Do nothing till you hear from me' is a good example. Far less successful are the songs where Ella's endless scat singing (technically outstanding judged on its own narrow terms) swamps all opportunity for the Ellington band to really stretch out and play. This is true of several of the tracks on CD1. For example, there are certainly much better versions of 'Rockin' In Rhythm' in the Ellington catalogue. In such exalted company, Ella should probably have exercised somewhat greater restraint (and I am trying to express this diplomatically). The point here is not to knock scat singing as such - obviously it was part of Ella's style. But the Ellington band built its reputation on tight ensemble playing and concise solo instrumentals with a strong melodic identity. Lengthy solo vocal improvisation does not sit well with this approach.

Prospective buyers should also be aware that CD2 doesn't really feature the Ellington orchestra at all. It is a set of small group recordings and features Ben Webster, whose solo work is magnificent - as usual. But the work of the other sidemen is less memorable and the piano accompaniments are merely average, and certainly not of the calibre one could confidently expect from Ellington or Strayhorn who are noticeably absent from the session. (Oscar Peterson plays on a number of the tracks, but he is not at his most inspired here.)

These shortcomings don't alter the fact that this is a classic album. Most fans of Ella or the Duke will want to have it in their collection, and I can't in all honesty give it less than 4 stars given its historical importance and the calibre of the participants. I just don't think it is quite as good as some of the 5 star reviews suggest. It has weaknesses as well as strengths. Moreover, many Ellington fans are likely to find the lack of solo instrumentals on many of the tracks dominated by Ella's scat singing somewhat frustrating. If I want to hear a solo without words, give me Johnny Hodges any day.
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