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The 24-CD Centennial Edition of Duke Ellington’s RCA recordings was the crown jewel of 1999 reissues. There’s already been a single CD extracted from the set, but there’s inevitably greater depth in this three-CD package. As an ancient emcee announces on “Cotton Club Stomp” from 1929, Ellington was not only “the greatest living master of jungle music,” but also the most daring and imaginative artist at work in American music, a composer who could span the boisterous and sublime. The first CD provides a good sample of early evidence, including the first true extended work of jazz, the two-part, eight-minute “Creole Rhapsody” from 1931, featuring the fine solo work of clarinetist Barney Bigard and trumpeter Cootie Williams. The train simulations on 1933’s “Daybreak Express” are still astonishing–program music pressing toward the avant-garde–while Williams’s plunger mute is a delightfully disruptive burr in an otherwise conventional cover of “My Old Flame.” The sound of the early tracks isn’t just a tribute to RCA and contemporary digital technology. Ellington possessed a special grasp of the recording studio, getting the best sonic picture of his compositions, just as he possessed a knowledge of his sidemen’s strengths and potentials. Many of those emblematic performances are here, like Bigard’s on “Mood Indigo” and several by Johnny Hodges.
Disc Two extends from 1940 to 1946, another rich period in Ellington’s relationship with RCA Victor and the beginnings of his longtime relationship with arranger-composer Billy Strayhorn, including such wonderful works as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Chelsea Bridge.” The third disc provides an excellent sample of Ellington’s oft-neglected later career, including a beautiful concert rendition of “Come Sunday” with singer Esther Marrow and the glorious “Isfahan” from the Far East Suite. Throughout, one is in the presence of an unparalleled musician and the orchestra that was the living, breathing embodiment of his creations. There’s also room for one of Duke’s 1940 duets with bassist Jimmy Blanton as well as his first recorded meeting with Louis Armstrong. Rather than competing with it, this makes an excellent companion to the recent three-CD Columbia selection, The Duke. Each fills in some of the other’s chronological gaps, and together they provide “alternate takes” during the early years when Ellington was label hopping to make pseudonymous cover versions of his own tunes. —Stuart Broomer
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