1938 was a very busy year for Duke Ellington in the recording studios, whether making classics with his big band or being the pianist and organizer of sessions allegedly led by his sidemen. This disc has plenty of big-band sides and combo dates led by clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and altoist Johnny Hodges. Most notable among the selections are "Stepping Into Swing Society," "Echoes of Harlem," "The Gal From Joe's," "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart," and "Jeep's Blues," but there are no throwaways among these three-minute gems.
The main change for the Duke Ellington Orchestra during this period was that the increasingly unreliable Bubber Miley (an alcoholic) was fired by Ellington in January 1929 and quickly replaced by Cootie Williams. Otherwise, the personnel was stable, featuring trombonist Joe Tricky Sam Nanton, altoist Johnny Hodges, and clarinetist Barney Bigard as key soloists along with trumpeters Miley, Arthur Whetsol, and Freddie Jenkins. Most of the selections from this era border on the classic, with highlights including Miley's spot on "Bandanna Babies," "I Must Have That Man," "Harlemania," and a two-part version of "Tiger Rag."
As usual with the Classics series, the music on this CD is released complete and in chronological order, covering the music originally released by several record labels but without including alternate takes. In the case of Duke Ellington, because he would frequently record the same song slightly rearranged on several occasions for different companies, there are multiple versions of some titles on this CD, but the alternate versions that he made for the labels have been left out. During the very important period covered by this disc, the Duke Ellington Orchestra (having recently found their sound) was hired by the Cotton Club as the house band and they hit the big time…
Duke Ellington's very busy year of 1938 resulted in enough music (counting small group dates led by his sidemen) to fill up more than three CDs. This disc has big-band dates plus outings headed by Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges. Although 1939-1942 is often thought of as the peak of Ellington's career, his output from 1938 was very impressive too. Among the high points of the sessions on this CD (which feature such soloists as trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart, trombonists Lawrence Brown and Tricky Sam Nanton, altoist Johnny Hodges, clarinetist Barney Bigard, baritonist Harry Carney, and Duke on piano) are "Love in Swingtime," "Prelude to a Kiss," "The Jeep Is Jumpin'," "Mighty Like the Blues," "Battle of Swing," and "Hodge Podge."
During the period covered by this CD, the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded nine performances (including vocal and instrumental versions of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm") while combos led by Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart, and Cootie Williams that were mostly filled with Ellington all-stars accounted for 14 other selections. Duke was overseeing everything while letting his star sidemen stretch out, and the result was a steady stream of fresh and high-quality recordings that both fit into the mainstream of swing and stood apart from other bands. Among the more memorable selections on this set (which contains quite a few obscurities) are "The Back Room Romp," "Tea and Trumpets," the remarkable "Harmony in Harlem," and the original versions of "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue."
1933 found Duke Ellington going overseas for the first time, and the four songs (and a short interview) that he recorded in London are on this CD. Otherwise things stayed pretty consistent with no major personnel change (Otto Hardwick rejoined the band), Ivie Anderson proving to be a strong asset with her vocals, and such gems as "Merry Go Round," "Sophisticated Lady," "Drop Me Off in Harlem," and "I'm Satisfied" offering further proof that Ellington was the master of the three-minute record, making every bar count. As usual with the Classics series, all of the master takes are included on this CD (repeating songs if they were recorded on different days) but leaving off the alternate takes.
This 23-track round-up of the bandleader's 1932-1933 output still offers enough in the way of quality originals and stellar playing to keep most Duke enthusiasts happy. The first half contains the choicest selections, including such top-notch ensemble vehicles as Benny Carter's "Jazz Cocktail" (his arrangement is used, too) and superb Ellington charts like "Slippery Horn," "Blue Harlem," and "Lightnin'." The latter half does sag a bit with several vocal novelties featuring Ivie Anderson, the Mills Brothers, and Adelaide Hall, but the always excellent contributions of Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Barney Bigard, and Cootie Williams keep things in check. An enjoyable slice of early Ellingtonia that's may be best left to the more trench-friendly of early jazz lovers.
Trying to make sense of Duke Ellington's massive catalog is one of the more daunting tasks facing jazz lovers. His early output alone includes scores of songs, often with several different versions and a variety of record labels to consider. For completists, the Classics label offers a chronological route covering the mid-'20s through the mid-'40s (without a lot in the way of alternate takes). And while not as strong in content as roundups on Bluebird or Columbia, these discs offer one the thrilling opportunity of witnessing Ellington go from novelty jungle material to sophisticated early swing and on into the annals of jazz legend with those stellar early-'40s sides…