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With Duke, It's Better Late Than Ever

Jazz* A new three-CD set titled 'Live and Rare' is an Ellington fan's gold mine that includes unreleased performances.

June 21, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mention the words "big band" and "jazz" in the same sentence, and the name Duke Ellington instantly springs to mind. A list of the innovative, mostly African American composers who created the instrumental collective that became such a vital entity in 20th century American music includes numerous other artists--Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Sy Oliver, Edgar Sampson and Mary Lou Williams among them.

But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Ellington and--after he became associated with the Duke in 1939--Billy Strayhorn. As with Beethoven in the 19th century, the awareness of Ellington's work powerfully affected every composer who followed.

So it's hardly surprising that the combination of historical importance and sheer musical appeal in the Duke's music has stimulated every record company with any Ellingtonia in their vaults to make it available to the public. One would assume that everything imaginable had already been issued on CD. Not so.

"Duke Ellington: Live and Rare" (Bluebird/RCA Records) is a three-CD boxed set dedicated to Ellington material from the last years of his life, from 1965 to 1973. The 70 tracks include 15 previously unreleased performances and 30 tracks appearing on CD for the first time.

Two complete albums are included: "The Duke at Tanglewood" (1965) and "Eastbourne Performance" (1974), the last officially recorded Ellington performance. Both have been available on CD only as part of RCA's massive, 24-disc "Duke Ellington Centennial Edition."

The Eastbourne tracks are supplemented with three Ellington piano tracks from a 1965 Pittsburgh Jazz Piano Workshop, a piano duet (on "House of Lords") with Earl Hines, and a three-tune solo piano performance by Ellington at a 1968 Newport Jazz Festival promotional party.

The Boston Pops tracks, recorded with Arthur Fiedler at Tanglewood, are enhanced by Ellington introductions to the selections (via a promotional radio recording) never before released to the public, as well as eight rehearsal takes, also previously unavailable.

The album's final CD is devoted to recordings and alternate takes from 1969 sessions that produced material for several Reader's Digest limited-edition LP sets. This collection--perhaps the last significant Ellington efforts not yet available to the general public--has been long sought after by Ellington fans. They will be pleased to learn that the CD also includes alternate takes, as well as a strikingly idiosyncratic vocal by Ellington on an alternative version of "Moon Maiden."

Why is all this Ellington material so important--even the material from his final years, when other arrangers often provided the charts for his orchestra? For good reason, primarily because they display the extraordinary staying power of an approach to composition and arranging that dates to the earliest years of the big jazz band.

The orchestrations of Ellington (and Strayhorn) were written in a style that was established early and maintained over the life of the Ellington ensemble. Essentially, it meant that each instrumental part was laid out with a specific player in mind. Even when personnel changed--which happened at a glacial pace in the Ellington aggregation, as opposed to most other big jazz bands--the replacement players were expected to deliver their parts in a fashion similar to the original player at that position. Eventually, the newer players would, in turn, have music to play that was tailored to their unique qualities.

Consequently, the orchestra's musical identity remained remarkably consistent during the five decades or so of its existence under Ellington, as well as the nearly three decades since his death. That consistency of sound and timbre was present in material ranging from such masterful creative efforts as "Black, Brown and Beige" to pop-tune-oriented collections such as the Reader's Digest tracks--even when the arrangements are provided by writers such as Luther Henderson, Wild Bill Davis and others.

As I have written so often about so many Ellington recordings, here is yet another compilation that merits a place in anyone's serious collection of jazz recordings.

Roman Holiday: Giancarlo Schiaffini is not exactly a highly visible figure in the jazz world--at least not in this country. But the 60-year-old trombonist, tuba player and composer has been an A-list player in the Italian music community since the '60s, moving comfortably from the avant-garde of Berio, Ligeti and Stockhausen to the equally edgy, envelope-stretching jazz of Rome's Instabile Orchestra. Wednesday night, he makes his Los Angeles debut appearance at the Italian Cultural Institute, performing his own work, "Rhapsody for Billie."

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