For the sake of honesty, I must admit that I have never particularly enjoyed music recorded before the '50s, though the occasional interloper has caught my ear and found itself an exception. The problem with the earlier music mostly has to do with technology. First, sound quality is a mixed bag (and often a disaster) by modern terms; and second, length limitations prohibited any stretching out, whether in solo or ensemble space. The latter consideration gets at the core of what constitutes modern jazz, and it's an unfortunate dividing line.
Duke Ellington's concert bands broke through this boundary around the turn of the century, with entrancing results. Following on the heels of Masterpieces by Ellington, producer George Avakian introduced the original Ellington Uptown with a flourish. Columbia has bunched this reissue with Masterpieces by Ellington and Festival Session, including original liner notes and heavy essays by historian Patricia Willard. Ellington Uptown is the fourth release of a record which originally came with five tracks, having since been picked over and rearranged repeatedly by Columbia.There's nothing to complain about with this combination of standards ("Take the 'A' Train," "The Mooche," "Perdido"), suites ("Harlem Suite"), and one Louie Bellson original ("Skin Deep") which is essentially a vehicle for lots of drumming. The reissue, containing recordings from 1951-52, sounds good: hi-fi indeed.
This particular combination of tunes actually comes across a bit unnerving, making you sit up and pay attention when vocalists pop in and out, composition and improvisation change seats, and the tone of pieces shifts dramatically. But the upside is that diversity is basically a good thing. Notable moments include (of course) Louie Bellson's pert drumming and blizzard-laden solo space on the opener. "Take the 'A' Train" goes from piano trio to big band and back, featuring gentle if spare vocals (plus scatting) by Betty Roche, infectiously melodic and casually sophisticated. More of Duke's piano comes through again on "Perdido," playfully bouncing in the lower register but still hanging on the occasional oblique harmonies that he used like spice. Nils Jacobson
A hardcore Ellington massacre that would embarrass most modern musicians for its thickness and complexity. Some of the best, strangest and heaviest renderings of Duke's repertoire and an almost baroque excursion into Ellington country, sometimes verging on vertigo: a meta-ellington reflection. David Jacobs
1. Skin Deep
2. The Mooche
3. Take the "A" Train
4. A Tone Parallel to Harlem (The Harlem Suite)
Saxophones: Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson
Trumpets: William Anderson, Clark Terry, Willie Cook, Ray Nance
Trombones: Juan Tizol, Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman
Drums: Louis Bellson
Bass: Wendell Marshall
Piano: Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington.
Recorded in 1951-52.
Released by Columbia in 1953.