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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Duke Ellington
The Duke; The Essential Collection (1927-1962)

When my editor gave me this collection for review, she either neglected to provide the promotional materials, or I lost them in the swamp of my office. The upshot is I have only the discs—no cover art or liner notes—and thus nothing to crib from. There is just the music.


Hear Samples of
The Duke: The Essential Collection (1927-1962)

Jeep's Blues
Mood Indigo
Star-Crossed Lovers

(Requires Windows Media)

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The truth is, I know little about jazz and less about Ellington’s work. But having listened intensely to the new 3-CD set, The Duke:The Essential Collection, I can safely say that The Duke Ellington Orchestra is the Cadillac of big bands—smooth, spacious and with serious power under the hood.To carry the vintage car analogy too far, in the early days The DEO was more like a Mustang, not sacrificing class for speed and attitude. This incarnation is represented on the first disc (1927-1940), easily my favorite of the three. But then, I’m partial to early big band, when the groups were scrappy and sassy and playing a kind of raw, passionate music that hasn’t been approximated since. The second and third discs find the Orchestra in full-on luxury mode, performing the kind of smooth big band jazz that appealed to dancing couples in the 1950s and early ’60s. There is so much going on in even the simplest of pieces that the compositions hold up in a way contemporary pop never does. Moreover, the range of The Duke’s influences is staggering, drawing from blues, classical, opera, and standards. His music was simply flawless, never overdone or garish.

Of course, I can provide no true insight into the genius that is abundantly apparent here. There are many dedicated jazzbos who could tell you which drummer plays on which selection, the evolution of compositions, and loads of other minutiae of which I’m unaware.  Fortu-nately, since we just passed the centennial of The Duke’s birth, information on his work is easily procured. But the fact that these three discs stand so well on their own, sans historical insights and recording notes, is the strongest testament to how essential this set really is.

- Christian Puffer

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