Duke Ellington

Liberian Suite: A Tone Parallel to Harlem [CBS]

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By 1947, when Duke Ellington jumped to Columbia after a brief stay at Musicraft (following six years at RCA Victor), he had one of the best bands anyone ever led, in any category of music. The tragedy was that Columbia squandered its opportunity to use them. The group spent almost a full year cutting short-form single tracks, and didn't get around to doing any of the more challenging music that Ellington was writing until the December 24, 1947 session that yielded Liberian Suite, after which it got caught in the Musician's Union recording ban and wasn't in the studio again until 1949. Liberian Suite brought Ellington to a new level of recognition. He'd begun writing multi-section suites in the early '40s, but Liberian Suite was his first international commission, from the government of the African nation, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding by freed American slaves; it was the first formal manifestation of a process by which Ellington would be a virtual musical ambassador to the world by the end of the next decade. As to the music, it is not Ellington's most sophisticated, but it is filled with bracing rhythms, juicy parts for the horns and saxes, and one stunning vocal part. Harry Carney may not be Frank Sinatra, but his vocal performance on the opening section, "I Like the Sunrise," is so beguiling in its subdued way, that it is definitive. "Dance No. 2" is the outstanding movement among the instrumental sections with a gorgeous Jimmy Hamilton clarinet solo and an absolutely splendid interlude by Tyree Glenn on the vibraphone. Ray Nance's violin is spotlighted in the more reflective, bluesy "Dance No. 3," and the decidedly more upbeat but less subtle "Dance No. 4" puts Nance back on trumpet, sharing the spotlight with saxman Johnny Hodges and drummer Louis Bellson. "Dance No. 5" closes the suite with some relaxed solos by Glenn (on trombone), and Nance and Harold Baker on trumpets. These were to be Ellington's last sessions done on lacquer discs, with their limited running time: the Musicians Union strike followed, and when he came back in 1949, it was to a studio utilizing magnetic tape, which allowed Ellington and his band to stretch out to concert-length performances running up to 15 minutes at a time.

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