By the mid-1960s, the Duke Ellington Orchestra were hardened world travelers and a well-oiled machine that could handle time zones and European audiences with nary an off night. This collection of tracks from Norman Granz' "Jazz At The Philharmonic" master holdings brings together highlights from concerts in Berlin in 1965 and Paris in 1967 and shows what a fine playing and occasionally improvisational unit the band always was. With only a couple of personnel changes between the two years, the Ellington orchestra plays with verve and flair, kicking off with Billy Strayhorn's "Midriff" from the Berlin concert. This is followed by a 14-minute piece called "Ad Lib On Nippon" based on the band's travels to Japan, featuring the clarinet work of co-composer Jimmy Hamilton. Another Strayhorn composition, "Chelsea Bridge," provides an ample showcase for tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who invests his solo passages with so much emotion that Ellington calls for an encore at tune's end.
"Happy-Go-Lucky Local" (originally part of his Deep South Suite) was one of Duke's most successful "train tunes," and again, Gonsalves provides most of the fireworks on this Ellington flag waver. The 1967 Paris concert begins with one of Billy Strayhorn's final compositions, "Blood Count," a somber, reflective piece that features a beautiful solo from Johnny Hodges. Hot on the heels of that is the jumping "Harmony In Harlem," which features Hodges doing some atypically (for him) fast solo work. This sets the stage for Johnny's extended workout on "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," a pithy reminder that the alto sax great was a great blues player as well as a master of ballad artistry. The response to this number is so overwhelming that Ellington features him again on "Drag," a soulfully constructed 16-bar piece that finds Hodges in a most playful mood and the audience responding wonderfully in kind. Ellington follows this with a 30-year-old staple of his band book, "Rockin' In Rhythm," featuring marvelous solos from Harry Carney on clarinet, Lawrence Brown on trombone and Cat Anderson blasting the band out on the coda, hitting high notes at the end with Al Killian-like authority. The concert and disc finish with Duke answering a request for "The Second Portrait of the Lion," a lively example of Ellington's seldom-heard stride piano playing. Surviving tapes sound reasonably good, and this makes a wonderful addition to Duke's legacy of live recordings.