Solidly ensconced at one of the most popular night spots in New York, the Cotton Club, when the earliest track on the album was laid down, Duke Ellington's distinctive sound of this early period was already well known. In addition to heavy recording and live performance schedules, Ellington was also producing a steady course of his own compositions and arrangements which were becoming staples of the band's book, laying the foundation for the group's unique voice. This album compiles Ellington performances from 1928 to 1932, all of which have appeared many times on a variety of labels. But this British-produced CD gives an intelligent, entertaining overview of the Ellington orchestra during this period. And there are a couple of surprises. The version of his haunting "Creole Love Call" on this CD is not the better-known 1927 cut which features Adelaide Hall's unforgettable wordless singing, but a 1932 recording initially issued on a 12" 78, allowing for a more extended play than the first version. While Hall's vocalizing is missed, Bubber Miley's growling trumpet continues to be prominent. "Hot and Bothered" is done in a scorching tempo with the "wah-wah" scatting of the somewhat mysterious Baby Cox and a chorus by the seminal guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Some of Ellington's compositions, which were to turn out to be his most enduring, are included, such as "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Mood Indigo," and "Creole Rhapsody," which was one of the first of Duke's extended compositions. Not all of the cuts are Ellington compositions. The Duke was playing popular songs of the day like "Limehouse Blues" and "Tiger Rag." Art Hickman's "Rose Room," which Ellington would often return to during his long career, is a vehicle for Barney Bigard's woody-toned clarinet. The title tune "Jazz Cocktail" was composed and arranged for Duke by another jazz giant-to-be, Benny Carter. Irving Mills shows up as vocalist on "Sing You Sinners," trying very hard to sound like Rudy Valle. These years also saw the arrival of Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, and, perhaps the Duke's finest vocalist, Ivie Anderson. With 16 tunes from Duke's formative period, Jazz Cocktail is a superior survey of Ellington's earlier recorded works. Already innovative at this stage in his long career, the material on the CD portends the development of one of America's foremost composers of any musical genre. There's one additional attraction, the CD has instructive liner notes by the noted British discographer, Brian Rust.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Nathan