Duke Ellington & His Orchestra are featured in excerpts from eight different short and medium-length films made between 1929 and the late '30s in this DVD compilation, all of which were likely pre-recorded in the studio then re-created for the cameras. The music from Black & Tan has a plot, starting with Ellington rehearsing with Bubber Miley in an apartment, nearly losing his piano to Repo men, though they are dissuaded with a little booze by the pianist's girlfriend, a dancer (played by Fredi Washington). The band plays several numbers for dancers in a club; when Washington collapses at the end of her feature, she is seen dying in her apartment, with a choir, musicians, and Duke, who honors her last request by playing the dirge-like "Black & Tan Fantasy." Other films are of varying quality. Symphony in Black has five separate movements, none of which became a lasting part of Ellington's repertoire. Vocalist Billie Holiday sings "Big City Blues" after being cast aside by her former lover in the segment "A Triangle." A documentary on the process of record-making is interesting, though one would rather hear Ellington's music without a voice-over. An RKO film short showcases Ray Nance on vocals and violin, along with trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, while Nanton and alto sax great Johnny Hodges are featured in "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." From the film A Bundles of Blues comes a rather deliberately paced "'Rockin' in Rhythm" and "Stormy Weather," the latter featuring trombonist Laurence Brown and vocalist Ivie Anderson. The only superfluous tracks are the ones featuring Mae West doing her vamp routine in Bell of the Nineties, with the Ellington band merely in a supporting role. Considering the vintage of the individual films, the audio and video are remarkably well preserved. It is a shame that the label failed to take the time to identify the musicians in each segment, along with the approximate recording dates. This collection will be of interest to fans of Duke Ellington's early music.
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AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden