Duke Ellington

Duke's Joint

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No sooner does RCA give us the Ellington Centennial box, containing all of the known Ellington recordings for RCA/Victor, then its new Buddha imprint raises the ante with this extraordinary 16-song collection of previously unissued live broadcast transcriptions. Mostly drawn from a series of October 1945 broadcasts from Cafe Zanzibar in New York, the disc features several fine numbers that Ellington never cut officially, showing off the best orchestral jazz band in history near the peak of its lineup. One of those lost numbers, "Three Cent Stomp," is especially delectable to the ear, a romp for the players that draws the listener completely into the spirit of the moment. There's also some surprising experimentation here -- Ellington didn't just confine his more daring ideas to Carnegie Hall -- most notably "Yesterdays," a strangely compelling mood-piece which features classical singer Kay Davis's soaring contralto. Most of the focus is on the instrumentalists -- Johnny Hodges is featured all over, along with Cat Anderson, Jimmy Hamilton, and Rex Stewart, but Hodges' sax sparks the most stirring moment here, a jam called "Blues on the Double" that's worth the price of the disc by itself, as he and the band show how effective the blues can be, even at high velocity. The sound ranges from good to excellent, and is far cleaner and brighter than the 55-year-old recordings would lead one to expect -- the sources for the Cafe Zanzibar transcriptions appear to have been glass masters that were broken in transit, and have been reassembled with astonishing success.

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