The Blanton-Webster Band Import
These 66 songs not only represent Ellington's artistic apex, but perhaps reflect the greatest creative period by any single artist in jazz history. Ellington had already made a lasting impression on jazz by 1940, but adding writer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, young bassist Jimmy Blanton, and tenor great Ben Webster brought the band to extraordinary new heights. The new blood boosted a roster already touting Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams (replaced by Ray Nance), Rex Stewart, Juan Tizol, and Barney Bigard. The set list reveals masterpiece after masterpiece: Ellington's "Cotton Tail," "Never No Lament," "All Too Soon," "In a Mellotone," "Warm Valley," "I Got It Bad," and "Sentimental Lady" plus Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" and "Take the 'A' Train" offer a mere taste of the treasures within. --Marc Greilsamer
The great misfortune to us all--if not scandal--is that ever since Ken Burns' wonderful series for PBS, jazz has again gone on the skids (notwithstanding a few isolated summer festivals and some of the Lincoln Center events). The American public doesn't even have ears for instrumental music let alone Ellington. If it's not vocals, guitars, and reductive sounds (or reductively loud), the music scarcely has a chance in the American marketplace. The last great tribute to Ellington was the Columbia/Sony remastering of the "Ellington at Newport '56" album, which by itself made the case for the value and potential of digital technology. Sony invested tens if not hundreds of thousands in the project, and some listeners have yet to grasp that such an event is not about to be repeated--at least not during any of our lifetimes. Your best bet for a lovingly remastered edition of these precious tracks--recordings representative of an African-American art form at its very best (compare these complex miniatures to Shakespeare's sonnets)--is a Spanish or French reissue.
Nevertheless, this RCA package is the equal of my two RCA LPs representing the band, it has additional tracks for which there was not room on the LPs, and the booklet is more informative and completely documented. It definitely belongs in the selective list of the top ten--if not top five--Ellington essential recordings. (The others would have to be "Ellington Uptown," "Such Suite Thunder," "The Nutcracker Suite," "Blue Rose." But that's not enough: you must have "Ellington at 'Newport '56," which was his best-selling LP recording, as well as "A Drum Is a Woman," "Black Brown and Beige," and a number of personal favorites that I won't list lest they discourage listeners from making their own discoveries in the universe of Ellington. I wouldn't list the Ellington-Coltrane album (in fact, the Ellington-Hawkins, Ellington-Fitzgerald, Ellington-Armstrong albums are more essential than the one with Coltrane, which, though often listed as the best-seller among Ellington albums, is largely an iconic meeting, with minimal Ellington. The meeting between the Ellington and Basie bands has more solid music from both legends. And for Ellington playing piano with modernists, "Money Jungle" with Mingus and Roach is better than the date with Coltrane. And despite what you may have heard, there's much of great appeal and quality on the three Sacred Music Concerts.
Finally, for an album that's practically miraculous, since long-playing tracks would not be in release for another ten years, the "Fargo Concert" reproduces a lot of the material on this collection but from a live, back-stage perspective in which the listener is plopped down in the midst of the band in 1940.
Coda: After listening again to Herb Jeffries' flawless, masterful singing on Strayhorn's nnovative arrangement of "Flamingo," I must issue a cautionary. Thinking I would save the time of going to the box set, I entered the words "Jeffries" and "Flamingo" in Amazon's search box and was greeted by no fewer than six non-Ellington, non-Strayhorn versions of the tune (the original interweaves Jeffries vocal instrument with the equally distinctive instrumental voices of Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges). The six tunes ranged from the ordinary to the atrocious (4 were disco mixes!). If you go this route, enter the tune under Ellington's name, not Jeffries'. As for audio quality, the later edition ("No Lament") has more bass frequencies and less evidence of surface noise or distortion. At the same time, I find that Jeffries' voice has slightly more presence, naturalness, authenticity on this version than on the more recent one. (There are usually trade-offs when remastering a previous edition--with the exception of the inarguably superior 1999 remastering of "Ellington at Newport '56.")