|Page 11||Music Reviews - CD||March 2007|
Duke Ellington, Vol. 13, Jam-A-Ditty,
Naxos Jazz Legends,
Count Basie, Vol. 4, Circus in Rhythm, Naxos Jazz Legends, 8.120820, 61:32 minutes
By AlidŽ Kohlhaas
Count yourself blessed if you have grown up in the age of the big bands, and have actually been present at performances of some of the greatest of them. Jazz comes in many forms, but regardless of what one thinks of one or the other, Jazz is a musical art form that has equal statusin my humble opinionówith 'classical' music. Unlike today's sorry state of affairs, in which the young are trapped into following sounds such as hip-hop and rap, Jazz requires musical training, even when the musicians are in improvisational mode. As a good friend from my school days once told me, he being a schooled musician and eventually an executive of the American Federation of Musician in Los Angles, "Rap is not music." I can only concur with him.
So, why this tirade? I am presently listening to a great CD released by Naxos's Jazz Legends label called Jam-A-Ditty. It is part of a series of CDs on Duke Ellington starting with Vol. 1, Cotton Club Stomp 1927-31. In the case of the CD being reviewed here, it is Vol. 13 of Original Recordings from 1946-47. Most of the 19 tracks on this CD feature some of Ellington's finest composition from the prime of his band. Not that Ellington wasn't always great, but in later years he more or less abandoned Swing and Be-Bop, instead writing jazz suites of considerable length, composed music that attempted to fuse Jazz with Christian Liturgy, even composed ballet music, and as he had from the very beginnings of his career, he continued to write film music.
The digital restoration of music recorded on poor-quality post WWII shellac 78s is quite amazing. While the sound is not always perfect, it is certainly no less good than the original recordings. Some of the defects that can be noticed, as the brief liner notes explain, were actually present on the originals.
Ellington, who was known for his suave demeanor preferred to call his music, "American music" rather than Jazz, and liked to say that it was "beyond category". In a way, he was right. This CD certainly gives us syncopated rhythm and riffs, but also sweet, thoughtful lines. No one at the time of the original recording could play the alto sax like Johnny Hodges. Just listen to that sound as featured on Magenta Haze. Mary Lou Williams' arrangement of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies (Trumpet No End) on the other hand, is pure Be-Bop. It is music to jive to, something today's generation hasn't a clue about. Jam-A-Ditty (Concert for 4 Jazz Horns) features Jimmy Hamilton, Taft Jordan, Harry Carney and Lawrence Brown on horns that swing in a sophisticated way that only an Ellington composition could. How High the Moon, a Nancy Hamilton-Morgan Lewis composition, sounds very different from the arrangement most of us know from its most famous version by Les Paul and Mary Ford. We hear it on this Ellington recording without Hamilton's lyrics, and consequently it has lost some of its romantic tone, which is replaced instead by a driving beat.
Blue Lou, an Edgar Sampson-Irving Mills composition offers the band considerable lee-way to swing and offers trumpeter Ray Nance a chance to shine. Like so many of Ellington's music, he wrote it with certain members of his band in mind. Far Away Blues is a wistful number that gives Hodges plenty of room to show his mastery on alto.
This, then, is a CD that should please any Ellington fan of his middle period, even though some of the tunes also reverberate with his pre-war sound.
Count Basie, Circus in Rhythm is another Naxos Jazz Legends CD. It was created from radio transcriptions and V-Discs from the Basie Band performances during 1944-45. This is a CD that also contains 19 tracks. This CD offers well-restored music from a time when technology had not yet reached today's sophisticated processes. What makes some of the tracks doubly attractive is that they retain the 'radio' sound of the '40s that is so very different from the present. There is a nostalgia about that sound that a younger generation might not quite appreciate.
Basie remained true to Swing throughout his life, yet his band had an unmistakable sound. No one could ever mistake Basie's Swing for anyone else's. There is a hard drive to many of the tunes that one does not find being presented by most other swing bands.
There is one track that features Thelma Carpenter singing the Duke Ellington-Bob Russell tune, Do Nothing Till you Hear From Me. Here the band captures the sweet sound of the original, which had been a considerable hit for Ellington, yet also brings to it a sound that is pure Basie. Wiggle-Woogie is both blues and boogie-woogie, as is Basie's Basie Woogie, which gives the bass rhythm section plenty to shine. Another vocal piece is Don Redman-Andy Razaf's Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You, featuring Jimmy Rushing. He was one of the finest blues singers heard regularly with a big band during this era. He was not a crooner of the usual ballad style. His singing emphasized the blues through and through.
Taps Miller must be one of Basie's most well-known tunes, which he wrote with Bob Russell. This 'tap' number was made doubly famous by Billy Eckstine in Rhythm In A Riff, filmed in 1946. Playhouse No. 2 Stomp (I Got Rhythm) is Basie's arrangement of George Gershwin's tune, and is the longest number on this CD, lasting almost five minutes. Here we get to hear Basie talking, since this tune was taken from a January 11, 1945, radio program in which he announces this tune.