I’m delighted to report a new 2-CD set of Ellington broadcast material from the Cotton Club — with some new things never otherwise issued, and a good deal of material that only serious Ellington collectors had at their fingertips. (I know that the music world might seem to some to be awash in Ellington CDs, but I think this set essential.)
The set is called, logically, DUKE ELLINGTON AT THE COTTON CLUB (Storyville 1038415). It begins with two selections — piano solos — taken from a “Saturday Night Swing Club” broadcast on May 8, 1937, and ends with the Ellington band broadcasting from Sweden on April 20, 1939, as part of an exultant tour.
In between there are forty-two selections broadcast live from the Cotton Club, from April 17 to May 29, 1938.
“Why is this essential?” you might ask. Most improvising ensembles, then and now, might find themselves somewhat confined by the limitations of the recording studio. It wasn’t always a matter of the time constraints imposed by the 78 rpm disc — two-thirds of the selections in this set would have fit on commercial releases.
But a recording session brought with it the pressure to make a mistake-free performance, which sometimes stifled the spontaneity so needed for improvisational brilliance. There is also the indefinable but audible give-and-take between a happy nightclub audience and the musicians on these discs, something that the dead air and clock of the recording studio could not reproduce.
These broadcasts give us tangible swinging evidence of what the Ellington band sounded when playing for real audiences — and of the variety of its approaches to identical material (three versions of IF DREAMS COME TRUE, for instance).
The accepted Ellington history is that the band reached a peak in 1940-1 when Ben Webster joined the band and Jimmy Blanton became the bassist, and the Victor recordings in this period are extraordinary. And the Fargo, North Dakota, dance date of November 1940 (seventy years ago next month!) has a swaying unbuttoned splendor.
But any history that deals in peaks and apexes is suspect, and if Ellington had disbanded in spring 1938 I think we would be mourning this orchestra as a great accomplishment, a merging of vividly disparate personalities all going in the same direction on the bandstand.
What we hear in these airshots is the band taking on pop tunes, originals, jamming in small-group contexts, melting Ivie Anderson vocals — a wonderful banquet with extraordinary solo and ensemble work from the Masters: Bigard, Carney, Hodges, Cootie, Rex, Greer, Lawrence Brown, Tricky Sam, and so on.
The set begins with two Ellington piano solos — SWING SESSION (SODA FOUNTAIN RAG in new attire) and a ruminative medley of two ballads, and it ends with a priceless long airshot from Sweden, where ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM is framed by a mournful, pensive SERENADE TO SWEDEN and a Swedish pop tune, IN A LITTLE RED COTTAGE (BY THE SEA) which Ivie sings most tenderly. And there’s even a one-minute video clip of the Cotton Club itself.
Ellington collectors will have known this material (discs were cut for composer / arranger / theorist Joseph Schillinger) when it was issued in part on two Jazz Archives records perhaps thirty-five years ago. And some of the tracks were issued elsewhere on even more elusive issues. But the Duke Ellington Society bulletin informs me that several tracks here were never issued anywhere, and it is delightful to have it all collected — in clear transfers with erudite notes by Andrew Homzy.
As the announcer says, “The Duke is on the air!”
1 Swing Session 2:00
2 Medley: Solitude/In A Sentimental Mood 3:00
3 Harmony In Harlem 3:20
4 If You Were In My Place 3:20
5 Mood Indigo 2:44
6 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 1:14
7 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 0:25
8 Oh Babe, Maybe Someday 2:58
9 Dinah’s In A Jam 2:12
10 If Dreams Come True 1:45
11 Scrontch 1:49
12 You Went To My head 1:42
13 Three Blind Mice 3:11
14 Solitude 3:28
15 Downtown Uproar 3:12
16 Dinah’s In A Jam 3:26
17 On The Sunny Side Of The Street 4:09
18 Ev’ry Day 2:45
19 Azure 2:46
20 Carnival In Caroline 2:50
21 Harmony In Harlem 3:35
22 At Your Back And Call 2:22
23 Solitude 3:18
24 The Gal From Joe’s 3:06
25 Riding On A Blue Note 2:38
26 If Dreams Come True 2:54
1 Oh Babe, Maybe Someday 2:51
2 I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart 1:31
3 Birmingham Breakdown 2:38
4 Rose Room 2:10
5 If Dreams Come True 2:34
6 It’s The Dreamer In Me 4:37
7 Lost In Meditation 3:53
8 Ev’ry Day 2:40
9 Echoes Of Harlem 4:40
10 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 0:58
11 Jig Walk 2:02
12 In A Sentimental Mood 1:13
13 I’m Slapping 7th Avenue2:50
14 Lost In Meditation 2:45
15 Alabamy Home 3:32
16 If You Were In My Place 2:15
17 Prelude in C Sharp Minor 2:56
18 Rockin’ In Rhythm 3:58
19 Serenade To Sweden 5:38
20 Rockin’ In Rhythm 4:24
21 In A Red Little Cottage 5:13
22 Video Clip from the Cotton Club 1:00
Total time: 66:28
For more details, visit http://www.storyvillerecords.com/default.aspx?tabID=2633&productId=27279&state_2838=2