Recent listening, current

Sunday, February 17, 2013

37. Duke Ellington / Ellington Uptown (1952)

It seems like Ellington Uptown gets short shrift, which could put off a listener who hasn't heard it. It really needs another look because it's an excellent album, and the orchestration and arrangements are especially good. Duke's work is like pizza: when it's good it's great and when it's bad... well, was it ever bad? Be honest. Even when it wasn't that great, it was still better than most everything else. By comparison, I think some of Duke's legacy is unfairly praised. All the "three minute masterpieces" are cracking good sides, but they're not all on the same level, and so the mediocre ones are elevated to a higher status partly by association and partly by critics who haven't listened to them all. Yet Duke's work from the 1950's languishes in the shadows, right at the moment when his famous soloists had matured and were really hitting a stride. With that in mind, this set swings really hard and practically lifts you off the floor. The arrangements are the full-length concert arrangements, closer to what the band was doing on stage rather than something they cooked up just for the record. There's even a live cut ("Skin Deep") with a famous drum solo by Louie Bellson. My favorite moment, on an album filled with favorite moments, is listening to Betty Roche sing "Take the 'A' Train." She had such a fun and playful style, like improvising a scat vocal that self consciously stabs at bebop. I love it when she sings her last line and leans off the microphone as the massed band blows in behind her. It sounds like the girl is falling backwards into an approaching tidal wave. So enjoy these chestnuts, which may be another example of Duke reinterpreting his back catalog, but are also a darned good example of what this band was all about.  

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