After my brother Jamie’s recommendation to seriously consider Duke Ellington as a resource for tunes that would work well in arrangement for a bowed string jazz combo, I looked up some reviews to see where to begin. I remember listening to some late, piano-heavy Ellington (or perhaps covers of Ellington?) years back and not being so impressed, so there’s been a little anxiety around the idea of returning for a close listen.
Picking up courage I found a good reddit.com thread with some recommendations.
I decided to start at the beginning with the 50-tune collection The Okeh Ellington, from his early period 1927-1930.
This well-written review by Kevin Gallaugher clinched it:
I empathize with the audiophiles’ comments here regarding sound quality of this recording, but at some point we must move on. Let’s concentrate on the music itself, groundbreaking art of the highest degree. These recordings come from perhaps Ellington’s most fascinating period, that two to three year window when his orchestra was not yet the world renowned, household name it would soon become, but was actually in the process of creating the body of work which would ultimately render that condition inevitable. During this period, the orchestra members seem fully cognizant that their band is the finest in the land. The recordings on display here palpably reflect that attitude. The blues was perhaps a more predominant element to the Orchestra’s sound than it would ever be thereafter. Critically, Bubber Miley is present, and in incandescent form. Miley was one of the most swinging, creative, emotionally expressive blues musicians who ever lived, and the growling, muted plunger style of interplay between Miley’s trumpet and Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone exhibited here would never again grace a recording studio once this period had passed. These two geniuses have influenced jazz musicians far and wide up to this day, whether or not they even realize who it is they copy…
Jamie, and K. Gallaugher, are absolutely right. The Ellington tunes are incredible. To my ear anyway, this is the pinnacle of what I’ve heard done with the blues. Check out Black and Tan Fantasy below.
Fun fact about Ellington: he was born in 1899.
One surprising thing to me is how similar the rhythm section in many of the Ellington recordings sounds to what Django and the Quintette du Hot Club de France would be doing in Paris with guitars a couple years later in the early thirties.
Compare Jubilee Stomp (Ellington) and Swing Guitars (Django).