THE DUKE PLAYS ELLINGTON, VOL. I spans the period between 1927 and 1938, a little less than half of which constituted the time when Duke Ellington's band was the house favorite at Harlem's Cotton Club. It kicks off with Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra playing the infectious "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo"-later covered by Steely Dan with a wah-wah guitar standing in for "Tricky Sam" Nanton's signature plungered trombone. According to the excellent liner notes by Tony Watts, this Ellington-Bubber Milley composition was Ellington's signature tune, until the bandleader adopted "Take the A Train" as his theme.
Not surprisingly, the sound quality of the early recordings is decidedly humble--particularly the late 1920's and early 1930's cuts. (The earliest tracks sound as if they're being filtered through a balloon that's rapidly losing air.) Still, as a document of its time, THE DUKE PLAYS ELLINGTON, VOL. I won't disappoint those fans hungry for Ellington's earlier work.