Regardless of the era, I’ve always enjoyed and marveled at
the sophistication and sheer variety of Duke Ellington’s arrangements/orchestrations for his big band orchestra. This
was evident even in his earliest recordings, such as the
complete electrical-era sessions he completed for Brunswick
and Vocalion, recorded between 1926 and 1931. They are
found here on a marvelous three-CD set, released in 1994
by the Decca Jazz label in conjunction with MCA, the owner
of the recordings.
These CDs consist of 67 different tracks, each lasting from
two and one-half to three and one-half minutes, some of which
are “alternate takes.” The relatively short length of each track
was due to the 78 rpm recording format used at that time. They
are also arranged chronologically, which was nice because
I could chart the growth of Ellington’s ensemble, along with
personnel and instrumentation changes. For example, in
Ellington’s earliest recordings made between December 1926
and December 1927, a tuba was used as the bass instrument
of the rhythm section, instead of a string bass. His earliest
recordings also used two trumpet players and a trombone,
whereas by 1929, he added Juan Tizol on valve trombone and
was using three trumpet players.
All of these changes, as well as recording dates and side
designations of the original discs are listed in the
accompanying booklet, which also includes an informative
essay by annotator, Steven Lasker.
I found the quality of the transfers to CD to be especially nice.
Considering when these songs were originally recorded, I was
expecting poor sound. Instead, I got recordings with good fidelity,
making it easy to listen.
The aforementioned sophistication of Ellington’s arrangements
meant that there were a wide variety of tone colors heard in
his ensemble(s), with a greater emphasis on interesting
combinations of instruments. These colors and harmonic
effects surpassed what was typically heard in other Jazz
bands/orchestras of this and later eras. This was true, regardless
of whether or not these were Ellington compositions.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
had an ensemble of outstanding soloists executing his ideas.
For example, saxophonists Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges
made their first appearances on the 1927 and 1928 recordings,
respectively. Ellington “played” these musicians like a true
virtuoso, and the results were always interesting. Of course,
there were other bands that could swing just as hard as Duke’s,
and many of them had their own star players. But as far as
sophisticated arrangements and tone colors are concerned,
Duke’s ensemble reigned supreme.
Just listen to recordings of other bands from the same era
(1926-1931), and see if you don’t agree with me.