Duke Ellington

1939 [Smithsonian]

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While Ellington's late-'20s and early-'40s output initially got the lion's share of attention, his late-'30s material is now being given its due, both in print and on record. And while certainly not as consistently brilliant as the Blanton-Webster sides of the following year, these 1939 selections still offer a generous dose of fine Ellington material and many sparkling solos by Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard, and all the other star soloists in the band. Put out by the Smithsonian and covering both Columbia and Brunswick sides, the 32-track collection includes such highlights as "Subtle Lament," "Portrait of the Lion," "Tootin' Through the Roof," and a new reading of "Sophisticated Lady." The arrival of both Billy Strayhorn and bassist Jimmy Blanton is another reason to get excited: While the former delivers one of his earliest collaborations with Ellington in "Grievin'," the latter jumps right into the fire for two duets with his boss, "Blues" and "Plucked Again." Maybe not an essential collection, but one that Ellington fans will certainly want to check out.