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Son continues Duke’s reign

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington at the Alhambra Pablo

The Duke Ellington Orchestra Continuum Fantasy



If you called this a before-and-after review, you’d be right on, because the “Duke Ellington at the Alhambra” recording was made in 1958 or 16 years before Ellington’s death, while “Continuum” is the first album the Ellington orchestra, under the direction of Duke’s son, Mercer, made after the senior Ellington died.




However, drawing a comparisons between the two recordings isn’t in the cards, since some of the musical greats in Duke’s ’58 orchestra had preceded him in death or had left the orchestra for other reasons by the time Mercer took over. So it’s Ellington’s music, not necessarily the musicians, that link the two bands.

The “Alhambra” session, a performance at the Alhambra Theater in Paris, is concrete evidence that when the Ellington band came out with all flags flying, it was one of America’s finest ensembles. There were times when the band’s play was sloppy and solos uninspired, but the Paris concert was not one of them.

Trumpet player Ray Nance’s brilliant work on the obligatory opening “Take the ‘A’ Train” served as a clue that good things lay ahead. And a medley of three Ellington jungle tunes, “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Cal” that followed, featuring baritone saxist Harry Carney, trombonist Quentin “Butter” Jackson and Nance, kept the train in motion.

Ellington made sure each of his leading lights had a chance to shine. Soprano saxist Johnny Hodges’ glistening glissando is showcased on “Jeep’s Blues” and “All Of Me”; Carney storms through “Frustration”; Clark Terry gives to chase to boppish “Juniflip”; and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton and bassist Jimmy Woode interprets “Tenderly” with tenderness.

The full orchestras comes on full-speed ahead with

“Newport Up” with Cat Anderson’s trumpet riding high over the pack and scoring big time on the joyous “Rocking in Rhythm.”

Shift gears to the ’74-’75 version of the Ellington orchestra with Mercer at the reins, and you’ll find much of the Ellington sound in tact though executed by a some old, some new cast of characters.

Carney, for example, is aboard for a ’74 take of “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” but died a short time later. He is the subject of a tribute tune later in the recording when Joe Temperley embraces “Carney.” And with Hodges no longer living, longtime Ellingtonian trumpeter inherits the Rabbit’s solo on “Jeep’s Blues,” while another Ellington veteran, Harold Minerve gives a convincing performance of another Hodges’ special, “Warm Valley.”

An absolute standout is the band’s performance of “Black and Tan Fantasy” that spotlights trombonist Art Baron playing open in the company of flugelhornist Barry Lee Hall and Williams, wielding plunger and cup mutes, respectively.

Other highlights among the 15 cuts – four selections are included on the CD that were not on the LP vinyl – include one of the bonus tracks, a soaring “Harlem Air Shaft”; the Billy Strayhorn obscurity, “Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note” featuring Hall’s hot horn; and the luscious “All Too Soon” that serves to introduce tenorman Anitole Gerasimov.

“Happy Go Lucky Local,” another of Duke’s “train songs” that brought the LP to a close is proof positive that Mercer was able to keep the Ellington Orchestra on track, even though the chief engineer for better than 50 years no longer was at the throttle.

Cam Miller is a freelance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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