The Ellington Suites by Duke Ellington

January 1, 2014


Duke Ellington, 1899-1974, was one of the masters of 20th Century American music. During his 50 year career he explored the jazz form within an orchestra and big band setting, which not only opened new vistas for the art form but made it commercially acceptable for mainstream America.

He created over 1000 compositions during his career. He would constantly rent studio time, creating many tracks that were not issued during his lifetime. So it was with the three suites that comprise this Original Jazz Classic Remasters reissue. The Queen’s Suite (1959), The Goutelas Suite (1971), and The Uwis Suite (1972) were sold to jazz impresario Norman Granz after Ellington’s death, who issued the then-unreleased suites on one album.

“The Queen’s Suite” is by far the best of the three offerings. Ellington met the Queen of England and that inspired him to write the suite of six songs. He pressed one copy and presented it to the Queen and then put the master tapes in the vault. Each of the songs has their own textures but they form a cohesive unit and flow from one to the next. The improvisational “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” and the poignant “Single Petal Of A Rose” are two of his better compositions. Taken as a whole the suite has an understated beauty.

The Goutelas Suite was recorded over a decade later. It is a more disjointed affair with the pieces being more individualistic in nature. The music was inspired by a thirteenth-century chateau. Four of the six songs, including the opening and closing “Fanfare,” are under two-minutes in length and the music never really lets the listener settle in. “Something” and “Having At It” may be a little over-bearing but they are two of his more complicated compositions. They may not be the best of Ellington but they are interesting in their structures.

The three-part “The Uwis Suite” was composed during a period when Ellington was using four letter designations when naming his new songs. The music grew out of a week-long Ellington festival held at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1972 (hence the title). The band conducted clinics and gave concerts. The music is about as playful as Ellington gets. The short “Klop” (polka spelled backwards without the A so it would be four letters) and the nine-minute “Loco-Madi,” which explores Ellington’s fascination with trains” are relaxed rides through his fertile imagination.

The only bonus track is a gem. The previously unreleased “The Kiss” was recorded at the same time as “The Uwis Suite” and is classic Ellington. It is not so much his piano playing or the solos by Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves as it is the overall atmosphere and cohesiveness of the musicians as they bring Ellington’s visions to creation.

As with all the releases in this series, the sound is impeccable and the enclosed booklet informative.

The Ellington Suite may not be the place to start when exploring his legacy. The three suites are also very different and form three distinct listening experiences. Still, “The Queen’s Suite” is a required listen for any fan of Ellington and the rest of the music is at worst interesting. The reissue fills in some of the missing parts in his legacy and as such is welcome.


Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook by Sarah Vaughan

November 24, 2013


Legendary jazz producer and label owner Norman Granz sold his Verve label to MGM during 1962. A little over a decade later he founded Pablo Records and signed such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Sarah Vaughan. During its 15 year existence, Pablo would release 350 albums by many of the leading jazz artists of the day.

Sarah Vaughan released two albums of Duke Ellington material for the label in 1980. Now those two albums, Duke Ellington Songbook One and Duke Ellington Songbook Two have been resurrected into one release titled Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection. Also included as bonus tracks are six previously unreleased performances.

The music is presented in chronological order by recording date. This means that the six bonus tracks, from the August 15, 1979 session, are the first tracks on the two-disc collection. The six tracks, arranged and produced by Benny Carter, are not outtakes but completely different versions of what appears on the Ellington Songbook releases. All the tracks are backed by strings and horns, which form a full background for her vocals. Highlights are a poignant “Lush Life,” a soaring “Sentimental Lady,” and a controlled “Tonight I Shall Sleep (With A Smile On My Face).” Through it all the saxophone play of Zoot Sims sets the mood.

The material from the two albums runs the gamut from sparse accompaniment to a full band and orchestra. The three tracks from the January 23, 1980 session feature the backing of only pianist Mike Wofford and guitarist Joe Pass. It allows the focus to be squarely on Vaughan’s vocals. “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Everything But You,” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues” allow her to explore the textures of each song.

Vaughan gives mellow performances on such tunes as “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “Solitude.” She harps back to the big band era with her cover of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

The sound from the original Pablo masters has been enhanced, plus there is a booklet that gives the history of each session.

Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection is a nice trip through the music of a by-gone era where the voice of jazz master Sarah Vaughan combines with the legacy of Duke Ellington.