This post is a being written on the Duke’s 112nd birthday, but in my mind every day we can hear his music is a kind of birthday.
I confess I am not an Official Ellington Idolator: you won’t catch me, here or elsewhere, referring to him as “the Maestro.” But for me, his music accomplishes so many things that no one else’s did. It exists at the intersection of Sound and Stomp, or beautiful tone-paintings and gutbucket rhythms.
Oh, I hear you saying — all jazz does that in some way.
True, but Ellington knew how to balance both of those qualities so that neither obliterated the other. And in his world the relentless plunging rhythms (think of Sonny Greer’s drums, Ellington’s smashing chords on the piano) enhanced the cloudlike auras of sound he loved — that saxophone section. Debussy meets Sidney Catlett, both of them happy uptown. And oone of the delights of his Thirties recordings is to hear him experimenting with the textures and timbres of “sweet music” mingled with distinctly vernacular sounds and rhythms.
The apex of Ellington’s art — depending on which ideologist you choose — is commonly held to be the Victor period, specifically those two years when Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton were illuminating the band — in the recording studio, at a dance date in Fargo, North Dakota, and more. I think the music captured during that period is irreplaceable and unimprovable: MAIN STEM, the airshots, the pure sound and pulse of that band. Across town, Basie and Lester and Buck, Walter, Herschel, and Jo, were accomplishing something of equal beauty and force, but Ellington’s Victors are something else!*
But the critical emphasis on those recordings has tended to flatten out the music that preceded that glorious period. Until now, with the Mosaic set of the recordings for Brunswick, Master, and Columbia from 1932 to 1940, which I am listening to in astonishment and joy as I write these words.
A digression about Mosaic sets. Some find them expensive, others are intimidated, and others say, “Gee, I have much of this music elsewhere.” All these statements are valid reactions. I felt differently about some of the sets that were objects I KNEW I had to have — the Buck Clayton Jam Session box, for instance, many years ago.
And I, like many collectors, thought all of the above — plus, “The sound on those cramped, stuffy Ellington Brunswicks was so irritating.” This set transcends the limitations of the original 78s and the sound is bright (but never harsh) throughout; there is wonderful unfussy scholarship from Steven Lasker, and marvelous photographs. There might be, perhaps, an Ellington collector who had managed to amass all of the 78s (including the alternate takes on Japanese Lucky), the Up-to-Date, Raretone, Blu-Disc, FDC microgroove issues . . . but who among us has been invited into George Avakian’s basement to hear and copy his previously unheard test pressings?
But the point of any Mosaic set is not, I submit, the six or seven new tracks. It is the wonderful totality — all neatly bound up with a figurative bow, rather like having the best scholarly edition of Shakespeare you can find, or the complete DVD set of the Astaire-Rogers films.
I used to hear a radio commercial for some very expensive watch, where the oleaginous announcer would intone, “You don’t buy a [insert name here] for yourself, you merely keep it for the next generation.” It irritated me no end, because I am perfectly happy with drugstore timepieces, but in the case of the Mosaic boxes I understand the principle perfectly. I hope to live long enough to have heard all the music in this set forty or fifty times, to have indulged myself in the sound of the reeds on DROP ME OFF AT HARLEM, the sound of Tricky Sam Nanton on IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, the slow-motion TIGER RAG that is SLIPPERY HORN, every note that Ivie Anderson sang, the bright splash of Sonny Greer’s cymbals . . . too many delights to enumerate!
Here’s the link. And the set is limited to an edition of 5000 copies; mine is number 3099 . . . does that suggest something about TEMPUS FUGIT? Or, “What are you waiting for, Mary?”
*For the people whose musical world is bounded by Blanton and Ben — the final session on this elaborate banquet of a box set has them both, along with Ivie, singing a meltingly sad SOLITUDE . . .