Duke Ellington

The Seattle Concert

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Duke Ellington's first official live album captured the man and the band in the midst of a new beginning with a lineup worth spotlighting (not that any earlier one wasn't, but the improvements in recording technology in the late '40s and the arrival of the 12" LP as the standard for jazz releases made the idea of a live album at this moment in history a no-brainer of a decision). Drummer Louie Bellson installed in place of departed Johnny Greer, Juan Tizol on valve trombone, conservatory-trained Britt Woodman joining Quentin Jackson on slide trombone, a saxophone section augmented by the new arrival of Willie Smith, and Willie Cook joining the trumpet section led by Clark Terry all contrived to give this particular Ellington band a new sound and dexterity, in many ways setting the stage for the triumph it would find at Newport in the middle and end of the decade. The Seattle Concert was a prelude to those triumphs. The album opens with "Skin Deep," one of two piece brought to the band by Bellson, and it's an indication of just how good it had to be, as a drum showcase, to open the album, leaving ample room for the ensemble to show off what it could do. Woodman is showcased on "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me," Smith takes center stage on a wonderfully soulful "Sophisticated Lady," Tizol's "Perdido" serves as a vehicle for Terry's trumpet excursions (which even include a nod or two to Alexander Borodin and what was then a hit tune, "A Stranger in Paradise" from the contemporary show Kismet), and Tizol improvises on "Caravan."

Most of the LP's second side was taken up by "Harlem Suite," one of several extant versions but the only official one to capture the excitement that the band brought to the piece on-stage. The middle section, in particular, is bracing in this rendition and worth the price of the disc by itself. "The Hawk Talks" was the second piece that Bellson brought over from Harry James' band, and showcases the drummer but gives Ellington a moment in the spotlight and even Wendell Marshall on bass a rare moment of glory. "Ellington Medley" is an example of what the bandleader had to do, increasingly, at his concerts, in order to satisfy the demand for the vast array of music for which Ellington was known. In just under seven minutes, it addresses some of the highlights of Ellington's more pop-focused repertoire out of the swing era, ranging from hauntingly lyrical pieces such as "Solitude" to rhythm numbers like "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Willie Cook and Paul Gonsalves lead off a string of exquisite solos by all of the principal players, closing the concert on "Jam With Sam." This isn't an ideal performance, by any means -- one would wish for a few more minutes of playing, a third LP side's worth if not an entire platter, but within the limits of a 48-minute LP this is an exceptionally good show, more than reasonably representative of what this band had to offer, which was considerable.

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