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Tunes to get the audience stomping

Duke Ellington was one of the few who survived the decline of big bands and swing, and this album shows why

Take the 'A' Train and Other Hits
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Music Today
Rs 95

This album marks Duke Ellington's birth centenary last April. At least three numbers, probably all, come from 1946 broadcasts collected much later into a series of albums. Big bands and swing were then in decline. Ellington was one of the few to survive; this album helps to show why. The orchestra had haemorrhaged talent, but still had enough firepower to keep the flag flying.

We'll come presently to the incomparable alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (aka the Jeep), but let's start with the opening and title track. Saxes playing the theme against a trumpet or trombone background chorus, trumpet soloing against saxes or trombones chorusing had been the standard arrangement of Ellington's theme song for years. But from performance to performance, the trumpet solos were unique. The marvellous trumpet solo here, by a musician who stayed briefly with Ellington, was no exception. Take the 'A' train opened most Ellington orchestra concerts, set the mood of the band, and got the whole audience stomping.

Crosstown was Hodges's tribute to his native heath Manhattan. The ensemble playing is catchy and infectious as in any up-tempo Ellington piece. Hodges's sax gliding sinuously through the notes, heard to best effect in slow-paced ballads, does just as good a job here setting the lively tempo both in the theme and in his solo. Trombone, trumpet, tenor sax, and piano solos fly thick and fast to make this a collection of contrasts in sound.

Hodges is the star of the album, in the foreground for the emotional ballad Passion flower, its composer Billy Strayhorn softly soloing behind him on piano. He again dominates, set off by a short bass solo, in the closing piece The Jeep is jumpin', another fast-paced vehicle (pun unintended!) for him. He has another quickfire solo on Riff 'n' drill, a fast-paced number opening with piano and bass playing duo before trombones join in. And he solos against Ray Nance's vocal and trumpet theme on Just squeeze me. Ellington's loyal deputy, Harry Carney, for decades jazz's leading baritone saxophonist, shares the honours with trumpet and clarinet on Jennie and features on Sono. Among the rest, I must pick out Transbluency for its gentle, haunting sound, created by a soft interplay of wordless vocals (an Ellington trademark), piano and trombone, with bass for support. And also mention You don't love me no more, a rare example of Ellington descending to pop.


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