[Originally published at my defunct blog Honey for the Bears on 2 May 2012]
In the 1980s Mercer Ellington donated his dad’s stockpile tapes to Danish Public Radio. A report from the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors (IAJRC) claimed this consisted of “120 studio sessions, 35 location recordings and 50 interviews.” In other words – this archive isn’t anywhere near exhausted.
A huge number of stockpile tracks appeared in one hit in the late 1980s as a ten CD (or cassette) Private Collection. They are available individually or in various boxes. Several different labels have reissued the series. The artwork on the Unidisc or Saja editions is superb (see above). The UK Kaz label versions (below) look low budget – and maybe they are? It doesn’t really matter too much, because these recordings are essential.
For a full listing of recording dates across the ten CDs, see the page at the Duke Ellington Panorama. Be warned that some reissues renumber the volumes just to confuse us. Ellington on the Web provides comparisons of the various CD editions of the series (the album cover images here are from their website).
Volumes 2 and 6 are excellent live dance dates from 1958, but I won’t consider them here.
Vol. 1: Studio Sessions, Chicago, 1956. ‘Feetbone’ is a swinging blues chart that features the newly returned Johnny Hodges, who also plays a characteristic ‘Prelude To A Kiss’. The other highlight is a quick version of 1940’s ‘Jump For Joy’ centred around Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet. It’s probably the best version out there. Gonsalves reads ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ at the right pace. Mostly from January and March 1956, but despite the title a couple of the tracks were taped in 1957.
Vol. 3: Studio Sessions, New York, 1962. Sessions from July and September, jumbled out of recording order. There is a lot of Paul Gonsalves on this set – it’s practically a companion to the Featuring Paul Gonsalves album taped that May (see Part I). Gonsalves was central to the success of Duke’s Newport renaissance in 1956, but I’m not much impressed by Gonsalves as a fast player. There’s too much of that here: The cracking E.S.P., for example, screams for a competent bop soloist, but instead we get Gonsalves riffing pointlessly all over the place. But on the slow numbers his work is excellent, such as on ‘Blue, Too’ and ‘Tune Up’, early incarnations of ‘The Shepherd’, and also on ‘Take It Slow’, a lovely, too-obscure Strayhorn tune. And Duke covers Monk! An excellent arrangement of ‘Monk’s Dream’, and an Ellington tribute called ‘Frere Monk’ featuring Cootie Williams.
Vol. 4: Studio Sessions, New York, 1963. Good to have Ray Nance out front on a lot of cuts, even on the Hodges vehicle ‘Jeep’s Blues’. Hodges is there for a very early run-through of ‘Isfahan’, which would later appear in The Far East Suite. These cuts are from April-July. The orchestra’s recent feverishly busy winter in Paris is reflected in the Spring sessions in New York: Duke brought along ‘Bloussons Noir’, while ‘Elysee’ is another lovely Strayhorn number.
Vol. 5: The Suites, New York, 1968 & 1970. A very important addition to the Duke canon. First up from late 1968 is The Degas Suite, intended as the soundtrack to an unreleased 1968 documentary about Degas’s racehorse paintings by Sam Shaw (a photographer and the producer of Paris Blues). The narration was by Anthony Quinn and (according to Claude Carriere at La Maison du Duke, Paris) Charles Boyer and Simone Signoret. See The Toledo Blade of December 29, 1968. The other work is a band sketch version of a ballet score called The River, which premiered (in an unfinished state) at the Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater on June 25, 1970. See here. A clip from a TV production is here.
Vol. 7: Studio Sessions, 1957 & 1962. Johnny Hodges gives us ‘Something Saxual’ and a nice reading of Strayhorn’s ‘Passion Flower’. Gonsalves tests my patience with a 12-bar ‘Wailing Interval’ à la Newport, but then gives one of his best solos to ‘I Cover The Waterfront’. There’s a lot of blues: trumpeter Willie Cook gets his own tune, and ‘Deep Blues’ is a fascinating dirge with Gonsalves purring low. Cook, Nance and Terry pass around ‘Three Trumps’. And there’s Milt Grayson’s nice vocal run-through of the Paris Blues theme song – no other vocal recording seems to exist.
Vol. 8: Studio Sessions, 1957, 1965, 1966, 1967, San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Only one track from 1957. The late sixties incarnation of the band is in fine form. The familiar ‘El Viti’ (aka ‘The Matador’) is a Mariachi-Blues groove for trumpeter Cat Anderson, a kind of sequel to 1958’s ‘El Gato’; the Cat also stands out on ‘The Last Go-Round’. This volume contains two cues from Duke’s 1963 Timon of Athens incidental score – ‘Skillipoop’ and ‘Banquet Scene’ – the rest of which is only available on a reconstructed 1993 recording by Stanley Silverman. And Duke experiments with a rock beat in 1967: ‘Ocht O’Clock Rock’ would later be re-recorded and included in Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.
Vol. 9: Studio Sessions, New York, 1968. Rather than taking the schmorgesborg approach, this record is all of a piece drawn from several late 1968 sessions. Harold Ashby is now in the band. By now Ellington was using a lot of four-letter codes for titles such as ‘Knuf’ and ‘Gigl’ (actually ‘Giggling Rapids’ aka ‘Grap’, a part of The River). ‘Reva’ has particularly pretty harmonies. ‘Ortseam’ is a hard-driving big band chart by Louis Bellson. ‘Cool and Groovy’ is sung by Trish Turner. ‘Elos’ is a slow gospel piece that later appeared as the Martin Luther King movement of Ellington’s posthumously performed symphonic work Three Black Kings. And it’s always nice to have another performance of the piano piece ‘Meditation’.
Vol. 10: Studio Sessions, New York & Chicago, 1965, 1966 & 1971. Perhaps the most important volume of the collection, and a perfect introduction to Ellington at his most ambitious. Although it’s not promoted as such, this CD is the elusive and (nearly) complete Black, Brown and Beige, a mid-60s re-recording of Duke’s 1943 Tone Parallel to the American Negro. Only a few sections of the ‘Beige’ movement are missing – probably because Ellington was never really satisfied with the rush job he did on ‘Beige’ in 1943. The full 1943 Carnegie Hall recording is listenable but rough; the 1958 album with Mahalia Jackson only covers the ‘Black’ movement. This one is in excellent stereo sound.
In other words – you gotta get Private Vol. 10. The CD is rounded out by performances of two excellent later Ellington long-form works: Harlem and Ad Lib on Nippon.
To be continued…