Duke Ellington - Masterpieces by EllingtonDuke Ellington - Ellington UptownDuke Ellington - Uptown

Duke Ellington

Masterpieces by Ellington / Ellington
Uptown / Festival Session


First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2004, Volume 11, #6

Written by John Metzger


In 1948, the 33-1/3 rpm Long-Playing record was introduced to the commercial market, ushering in a new era for music. One of the artists who benefitted tremendously from the then-modern format was Duke Ellington, whose lengthy suites formerly were truncated due to the limitations of the 78 rpm single. Liberated from these constraints, he recorded Masterpieces by Ellington, which found the composer revisiting a trio of his best-known works — Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, and Solitude — all of which were originally penned in the ’30s but were now given extended treatments that matched their gloriously epic concert counterparts.

There’s no question that Ellington’s compositional style was quite different from the rowdy New Orleans jazz and swing of the ’20s and ’30s, and that it wasn’t as rambunctiously adventurous as the experiments of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Instead, Ellington wrote songs that were sophisticated and stately, having as much in common with classical and pop performance pieces as they did those from the jazz world. In fact, his greatest influence may have been George Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue — or its essence, at least — bubbles through much of Masterpieces by Ellington. Still, while it’s certainly true that his productions were scored and heavily orchestrated, they also managed to convey an added texture that contained a groovier air, allowing him to walk perfectly along a line that separated refined dignity from Saturday night debauchery. The three bonus tracks that now amend the initial album are all abbreviated singles, but they’re also lively distillations of Ellington’s concert sound.

In 1952, Ellington returned with Ellington Uptown, which once again found the composer turning to older material, recording extended renditions of classics from his repertoire (Take the ‘A’ Train, The Mooche, and Perdido) while adding two new pieces — the percolating, percussion-driven Skin Deep and the theatrical A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite). Despite the departure of alto sax player Johnny Hodges, Ellington and his band lost none of its drive, passion, or creativity, and in fact, given its greater stylistic diversity, this collection arguably is the better of the two LPs from this transitional era. Even more satisfying is the recent reissue of Ellington Uptown, which now features all of the compositions that appeared on the three variations of the LP, including Ellington’s musical commentary on the changing jazz world known as The Controversial Suite, and the exotically panoramic, six-part song-cycle titled The Liberian Suite. These latter two pieces are essential Ellington, and they brilliantly showcase an artist who, after more than 25 years in the business, still had plenty to contribute.

By 1959, the jazz world had changed significantly due to the advent of the festival circuit, which linked together a series of outdoor concerts held in amphitheaters across the country under the warm, summer sun. On September 8, following the completion of his U.S. tour and just two days before heading to Europe, Ellington reconvened his ensemble for a period of recording, conducted between 8:00 am and noon, that resulted in Festival Session. There are quiet moments scattered here and there throughout the collection, but the bulk of the album delves into the type of playfully robust fare that was well-suited to summer’s celebratory scene. Nearly every track was propelled by sprightly rhythmic undercurrents with horns and reeds adding splashes of color as the soloists took turns unleashing their fiery blasts of brilliance. Though the songs still carried an orchestral ambience — particularly the two new suites Duael Fuel and Idiom ’59 — they also, by necessity, lost the classical air of many of Ellington’s other works, venturing largely into unbridled, free-spirited swing. The reissue adds a pair of bonus tracks (V.I.P.’s Boogie and Jam with Sam) that originated as a one segment from a larger piece, but were divided for release as singles.

Taken in total, Masterpieces by Ellington, Ellington Uptown, and Festival Session shine a spotlight on Ellington’s amazing talent by highlighting an artist who was unparalleled in his craft, but remained aware of the times in which he wrote. As such, it charts his evolution, showcasing the manner in which his compositional style changed while never losing sight of the innovations he brought to bear on the world of jazz.


Masterpieces by Ellingtonstarstarstarstar

Ellington Uptownstarstarstarstarstar

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Masterpieces by Ellington is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Ellington Uptown is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Festival Session is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2004 The Music Box