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Top class stuff even without the roar of a lion

True to its title, this album features Duke Ellington's best work, including a piece where he hijacked a "sweet" swing band into jazz

The Best of Duke Ellington
Centennial Edition:
The complete RCA Victor recordings (1927-1973)

BMG Crescendo
Rs 125

Last month I wrote about Duke Ellington and the superlative sophistication of his orchestra's work. I mentioned a new 24-CD collection of his work for one recording label, and along comes an album that picks out 18 pieces from that boxed set. No, it doesn't contain Menelik - the Lion of Judah, the piece that features the extraordinary sound of Rex Stewart's cornet mimicking the roar of a lion, but it bids fair to justify its claim of being the best of that boxed set.

The growl trumpet of Bubber Miley or his successors? Choose from Black and tan fantasy, East St. Louis toodle-oo, Mood indigo, Hot and bothered, Creole love call and Jack the bear. Let's particularly focus on that last piece: solos by piano (not frequently used by Ellington), bass (by the first improvising bassist, Jimmy Blanton), clarinet, growl trumpet and "wah-wah" trumpet offer a fascinating variety of colours. That last, the "wah-wah", was produced by inserting and removing the mute in the horn of the trumpet rhythmically.

Then there's of course the alto sax of Johnny Hodges and the intensely emotional effect it was famous for. You'll find it on Isfahan, Sophisticated lady, I got it bad and that ain't good, Day dream... There's another great interplay of colours in I got it bad... as the Hodges sax teams up with the wordless vocals (another Ellington trademark) of Ivie Anderson.

What Ellington collection could claim to be the best without a version of his theme Take the 'A' train? Here we have Ben Webster on tenor sax leading a trombone chorus on the melody, while Ray Nance, supported by a sax chorus, takes a series of trumpet solos that became the standard against which to further improvise on this number.

Other delights of this album include an unusual piece in which the orchestra, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, turns unobtrusive behind the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson rendering Come Sunday. Or Ellington's collaborator and alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, replacing him at the piano for his own composition Raincheck. This is a fast-moving piece in which the piano, trumpet and tenor sax solos emerge from a mayhem of sound. Or a piece on which Ellington sits in with a famous non-jazz big band led by the trombonist Tommy Dorsey, nudges it into jazz by interpolating a number of piano solos, and throws in his characteristic touch by making the band mix its colours delicately. Why it's called The minor goes muggin' is beyond me, but surely some sort of crime was afoot when a "sweet" swing band was shanghaied into jazz!


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