Aside from his mammoth tape archive, Ellington left additional works unreleased, unrecorded, or unfinished at his death in 1974. Here is a brief list of the various attempts by others to complete/reconstruct those works for record. It’s not complete.
THREE BLACK KINGS and THE RIVER
Mercer Ellington completed his father’s final symphonic work Three Black Kings (Balthazar, Solomon, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). It was orchestrated by Luther Henderson. In 1980 Mercer led the Duke Ellington Orchestra (still going strong) in a live recording with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Unfortunately the LP has never been reissued on CD and is rare.
The album also marked the first appearance on record of Ellington’s 1970 ballet The River, orchestrated by Ron Collier. Stanley Sloane writes, “If you wanted to have an idea of what the ballet might have sounded like if Ellington’s men had joined forces with a small symphony orchestra in the pit… this is the recording to have.”
Ellington’s 43-minute demo recording of the ballet with his band (recorded 1970) appeared years later on the Private Collection Volume 5 (see here). Stanley Dance described that recording as “the blueprints on which [Ron Collier’s] orchestrations for the ballet company’s own orchestra would ultimately be built.”
There are several later recordings of these Ellington symphonic works, sometimes paired with orchestral versions of works originally written by Ellington for the big band: Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra, Akira Endo conducting the Louisville Orchestra, Lowell L. Graham conducting the United States Air Force Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
TIMON OF ATHENS
Duke wrote incidental music for a 1963 Stratford Festival of Canada production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. The play was directed by Michael Langham. Ellington originally utilized six musicians. When the production moved to England’s Chichester Festival in 1964, the instrumentation was enlarged.
The score was revived in 1991 for a new theatrical production by Langham at the 1991 Stratford Festival. Stanley Silverman adapted Ellington’s “sketches and partial score” and added some vintage well-known Ellington pieces that fitted into the play’s interwar European setting. This recording is from that production.
The liner notes are here.
Music from another failed Ellington Broadway musical. This one, a New Orleans version of The Blue Angel, closed after three performances in 1966. On this 1990s revival for CD, a small band led by Ellis Larkins is fronted by vocalists Marshall Barer (also the original lyricist) and Barbara Lea. I like the title song.
Saturday Laughter was an unproduced 1958 musical based on Peter Abraham’s anti-apartheid novel Mine Boy. Ellington and Strayhorn wrote twenty-two songs with lyricist Herb Martin. The project was partially revived in the form of a 2002 CD called Secret Ellington: twelve of the songs performed by various artists.
David Serero’s is the only professional recording of this 1946 Ellington musical (with lyrics by John LaTouche). It was based on the The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, the same source material as Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Serero’s is a recording of a 2004 reworking by Dale Wasserman. The vocalists here seem totally unsuited to the material.
An unfinished and long-gestating Ellington jazz opera. I don’t want to get into the convoluted posthumous history of this one. There have been various stagings over the years. This is a solid recording from a 2009 production starring Carmen Bradford with the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
ELLINGTON: FRENCH TOUCH
A labour of love from the world’s finest Duke Ellington repertory orchestra, led by Laurent Mignard. This 2012 release contains a number of pieces otherwise unavailable: Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s complete incidental music for a 1960 production of Alain-René Lesage’s Turcaret, transcribed by Mignard from a lo-fi collector’s tape; a cue from Paris Blues that didn’t make the original soundtrack LP (plus extended versions of others); and three outcast movements from Duke’s Goutelas Suite (two of these reconstructed from Ellington’s sketches).
Here is my 2012 review of this CD at PopMatters.com. And in 2011 I published a two-part feature at the same site on Duke Ellington in Paris. Part 1: Busy Winters and Part 2: Interview with Laurent Mignard.