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Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra

by B.A. Nilsson on May 4, 2011

The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia, and Master Recordings
In hindsight, it seems as if Duke Ellington was always iconic, always at the heart of American music. But by 1932, his was still a local (albeit New York-based) band, one that had been playing at New York’s prestigious Cotton Club since 1927, and drawing its first measure of national attention through recordings and radio broadcasts. It was a newfangled jazz band playing what was termed jungle music, rhythmically charged numbers set off by the growling trumpet of Bubber Miley, amid a sprinkling of ballads and pop songs of the day.

The miasma of racism, economic volatility and commercial interests of the period has been the subject of book-length studies. Suffice it to say that Ellington and his band were in the right place to develop enough of a following to allow him to transcend those sociological enemies through his appealing, always-evolving music, presented with relentless dignity. And his music became one of the most distinctive sounds of the era, one that twinned with the Big Band boom of the early ’40s but continued to develop thereafter.

Ellington has been well represented on compact disc. His major recording contracts were with Columbia (now Sony) and Victor (which became RCA, then BMG, and is now part of, you guessed it, Sony). All of the Victor sides have been issued at one time or another, but the output on Columbia and its subsidiary labels has been more spotty.

Ever the champion of excellent vintage jazz, Mosaic Records has filled the biggest chronological gap with an 11-CD set of Duke’s 1932 to 1940 recordings, a rich, fascinating era too often overshadowed by the star-driven success of his 1940-42 aggregation.

We begin in February 1932 with a home run: the Ellington-penned “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which also introduced his finest vocalist, Ivie Anderson, whose presence on this set is reason enough to acquire it. Such star soloists as Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard and Harry Carney are featured throughout, so the famous Ellington sound was well in place.

Of the 250-plus cuts on this set, you get such Ellington originals as the earliest surviving recording of “Sophisticated Lady” and the debuts of “Solitude” (composed moments before the red light went on) and “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Although “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” pack in all kinds of energy here, it was a performance of these in 1956 that would revive the bandleader’s faltering career. “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” makes its first appearance, as does the Ellington band’s version of “Caravan,” a collaboration between Duke and his trombonist Juan Tizol. Also featured is a then-new recording of “Creole Love Call.”

Alongside Anderson’s many vocals, Ethel Waters sings the premiere recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and there’s a guest appearance by Bing Crosby in his only recording with the band, “St. Louis Blues.” The centerpiece of the set is an amazing (and long-derided) extended musical essay titled “Reminiscing in Tempo,” Ellington’s longest work to date, which set the stage for many such pieces thereafter.

As always, Mosaic’s engineers took pains to extract the best possible sound from the source material, which in most cases were 70- to 80-year-old 78s. Most of them were preserved well and yielded what I’m sure is the best sound possible, but even the dodgier stuff got its hair combed and shirt tucked in.

Available alternate takes appear at the conclusion of each disc, which is less maddening than Mosaic’s earlier practice of one-after-another-ing them. And Steven Lasker, who supervised the audio transfers, wrote an excellent essay that sets up the context of this era of the band’s career and then examines the repertory session by session, sharing fascinating trivia and identifying soloists along the way.

It’s a heftier-than-usual Mosaic box (most top out at seven CDs), but the material warrants the size and expense. It’s a must not only for Ellington fans but also fans of the rich history of American music.