This volume is part of a total of 15 albums that were compiled by the French RCA, packaged both individually and in five-record boxes that have reportedly led to duels amongst collectors now that they are long out of print. In a recording career full of historical landmarks and important honors, this album would still have something of a flag to raise as it marks the beginning of the Duke's collaboration with pianist, arranger, and composer Billy Strayhorn. The February 1941 session was the one where the new partners decided to try out a theme Strayhorn had written for the band: a little something called "Take the A Train." This collection provides alternate takes of almost all the tunes, and the collection of solos one winds up with is a luscious bowl of cherries, indeed, as the gang is all here: Rex Stewart, "Tricky" Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, and Barney Bigard. Want to take a break and fix a snack? Do it during "Frankie and Johnny," a horrifying collaboration between Ellington and an orchestra under the direction of John Trotter. Despite Blanton's best efforts to jazz things up, a choir shows up in the worst possible place to make this perhaps the most obnoxious version of this song ever recorded, and competition is stiff. Four piano solos are included on side two, and again the alternate takes are fascinating, with it somewhat unbelievable that the Duke can make versions of "Solitude" identically long, right down to the second!
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AllMusic Review by Eugene Chadbourne