This compilation of live concert and studio recordings in Hamburg, Orlando, and NYC from the Nagel-Heyer catalogue features the more balladic side of Ellington, though there are a couple of well-swung numbers as well as some tunes from ostensible leaders not present on these particular sessions featuring a different instrumentalist. The only band that doubles up is the Danny Moss-Roy Williams Quintet, who perform two pieces: the 12-bar "Blues to Be There" front-loaded by pianist John Pearce with soft tenor sax and trombone from the leaders, and a very slow "Mood Indigo" with Moss leading on tenor and Williams harmonically following on trombone. Trumpeter Randy Sandke is featured with the Harry Allen Quintet sans Allen for "I Got It Bad," and he also goes into duet mode with guitarist Howard Alden on the lesser-known striding ballad "Azalea" from a Butch Miles & Friends live session. Allen gets in his two cents on "Sophisticated Lady," while Warren Vaché's soft-toned cornet informs "Warm Valley" with the Allan Vaché Swingtet, sans Vaché. Both Vaché brothers traipse through the lightly swinging "Just Squeeze Me," with considerable help from Alden and the wonderful piano inserts of Eddie Higgins. The interesting asides include: "Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me," featuring Milt Grayson singing in his deep, soulful, Eckstein-ish falsetto with Victor Goines' sweet clarinet in trombonist Wycliffe Gordon's sextet; a lengthy "Satin Doll" set up by Roy Williams and Bill Allred's well-swung dual trombones; and the delicately swung "Creole Love Call" from Oscar Klein's triple-clarinet-fronted Anniversary Band, an octet with Willy Mitterwald's muted trombone. The best swing, however, comes from the six-piece New York All Stars with Sandke, trombonist Dan Barrett, and bass saxophonist Scott Robinson on "In a Mellow Tone." In this piece, Sandke counters the other horns in big-band style before Robinson's husky, attention-grabbing woodwindo profundo takes charge in yeoman proportions. There's also a five-part Ellington medley from trombonist Rex Allen's Swing Express. Barrett's trumpet leads on "Solitude," while Harry Allen's tenor and the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli take over "Chelsea Bridge." Forming the basis for "Do Nothin'," Rex Allen's trombone wails or warbles, alternately muted or not. A tart alto sax by Jim Rothermel on "I Got It Bad" and a piano break from Mark Shane prompts all to join in on the ever rich "Mood Indigo."
It seems Ellington tributes are a dime a dozen these days, but this one, with its laid-back focus and personable interpretation from all these great traditional jazz stars, can't help but be attractive to any hearty jazz fan. Recommended.