By Matt Caputo
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The irony is that Ellington loved records and was always presciently quick to write for new technology. Just as early radio producers sought baritones rather than tenors, Ellington recognized the virtues and limits of early recording techniques and wrote accordingly. Thus his bottom-note voicings and ingenious figure-and-ground orchestrations of ensemble and soloist make his records sound more vibrant today than those of his contemporaries, especially those he made for Victor, which had the best engineers. He began chafing at the three-minute limit as early as 1931, with the two-sided "Creole Rhapsody" (Decca's Jack Kapp was so aghast, he declined to renew his contract). A year later, at Victor, he was one of the first to make a true stereo recording, with two separate mike placements. In 1935, he recorded for Columbia the four-sided "Reminiscing in Tempo," which was received so viciously he went into a brief seclusion. The 1940s concert works, beginning with Black, Brown and Beige, were recorded in excerpted form or not at all until the advent of the LP.
When tape was introduced here in 1947, followed a year later by the LP, Ellington was ready. Tastes in jazz and popular music were changing radically and many stars of the '30s and '40s were no longer climbing the charts. Victor's doughnut-hole 45s sustained the jukebox trade, but the concomitant appearance of tape- engendered high fidelity and discs that held 20 minutes and more a side were made to order for affluent grown-ups in postwar America. Performers like Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra could no longer compete on AM radio; the LP was ideal for them and their audiences. At the same time, Ellington began to revise his approach to swing, hiring virtuoso drummer Louis Bellson to help drive the increasingly daring propulsion of music that was less ornate and punchier. After the relatively brief period, 1943 to 1952, when he concentrated on extended forms, he realized that the LP and his own talent were best suited to the classic suitea long form that consists of short forms, the miniatures at which he excelled. It liberated him.
Many artists failed to see the LP as anything more than a compilation of 78sa dozen three-minute tracks instead of two, a symphony on one disc instead of six. Those with imagination instantly recognized two ways of using the LP that distinguished it from the 45: live recordings that retained the real-time ambience of a concert; and thematic recordings that saluted songwriters or explored eras and musical styles. Most jazz musicians availed themselves of extended playing time to record longer solos or longer versions of pieces that could be expanded or contracted at will. But few addressed the issue of form and function the way, for instance, Gil Evans and the Beatles did, creating a music that required the roominess of the LP and took advantage of high fidelity and tape trickery. No one understood this potential more fully than Duke Ellington.
A key transitional work was 1947's Liberian Suite, commissioned for the nation's centenary and made up of a heraldic opening and five diverse dances. Ellington used the new technology to overdub Al Hibbler's vocal in the first movement, and Columbia released it as an early 10-inch LP. Two years later, Ellington began documenting his extended tone poems. In late 1950, he recorded Masterpieces by Ellington, which, eros aside, was one of the first genuinely significant 12-inch LPs, combining the "concert" arrangements of three of his '30s hits and a radiantly genial slice of postwar modernism, "The Tattooed Bride." One year later came the best of his long-form tone poems, Harlem, a triple-theme rhapsody that begins with the plaintive wail of cornetist Ray Nance, continues with the entwined romance of Harry Carney's baritone and Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet, pulses with Louis Bellson's rumbling drums, and attains resolution in the sublime eight-bar hymn introduced by trombonist Britt Woodman and developed in variations through the last third of the piece. Harlem exists in several recordings, but Ellington got it right the first time.
The next year, Ellington, like Sinatra, left Columbia for Capitol, which for him was a mistake. He began his new association with a bang, "Satin Doll"his last hit single and, for many, the quintessential hi-fi big-band track. But this was not a happy period for him. With Hodges and Lawrence Brown gone and Bellson compelled to leave to accompany his wife, Pearl Bailey, he appeared to have doubts about his direction and even his past. The best of the Capitols are his deeply moving piano trios; his attempts at revision or modernization occasionally border on parody, if not blasphemy. All that changed with the shot heard round the world: his electrifying set at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Hodges and Brown were back and so was his confidence. One consequence of that evening was Time's belated decision to grant Ellington a cover, which if nothing else symbolized a renaissance in his creative powers that he sustained without letup over the next 28 years.
So let me yield to temptation and offer a short list after alla 10-step survey of that last, long-belittled labyrinth within the labyrinth: the mature Ellington, the wise Ellington, the all-encompassing Ellington. 1. Ellington at Newport (Columbia), with "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" and Paul Gonsalves's marathon tenor solo. 2. Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia), the Shakespearean suite, festooned with musical and numerical analogies to the plays and sonnets. 3. Ellington Jazz Party (get the version on Mobile Fidelity), with guest spots by Jimmy Rushing and Dizzy Gillespie and a melody written for percussion, "Maletoba Spank," that will rattle in your brain until you die. 4. The Ellington Suites (Pablo), including The Queen's Suite. 5. The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic), an exceptional performance that begins with a definitive "Rockin in Rhythm" and ends with Harlem. 6. The Popular Duke Ellington (RCA), exemplary chestnuts (excepting a throwaway "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me"), expertly recorded. 7. The Far East Suite (RCA), the pinnacle of his last decade, a riot of melody, rhythm, and racy dissonance, and a triumph of assimilation. 8. And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA), perhaps the most sumptuous and moving of all Ellington LPs. 9. Latin American Suite (Fantasy), with scant suggestions of '40s south of the border melodies, Ellington and Gonsalves have a field day. 10. The Afro Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy), focused on reeds and rhythm (no brass solos), accessing chants, modes, rock rhythms, and one-world conceits that were just coming into play.