Duke Ellington and other jazz bandleaders were hampered by yet another James J. Petrillo-ordered musician's union strike in 1948, which robbed them of commercial recording opportunities. But nothing prevented Ellington from having reference recordings made for his own use, such as this 1948 Cornell University concert, which contains all but three songs played that night. This remarkably well-balanced recording showcases Ellington's usual mix of recent compositions, hits (including ten packed into a medley), tone poems, and obscurities. Among the lesser-known gems performed are "Paradise" (a lush Billy Strayhorn ballad feature for baritone saxophonist Harry Carney) and ill-fated trumpeter Al Killian in "You Oughta," while both trombonist Lawrence Brown and Carney (on bass clarinet) shine in "Fantazm," which only briefly remained in the book. There are several memorable performances of Ellington's hits, including Kay Davis' wordless vocal in "Creole Love Call" backed by a clarinet trio (Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, and Harry Carney), plus a sassy trumpet feature for Ray Nance, the playful miniature "Dancers in Love" showcasing the pianist with his rhythm section, the brisk brass showcase "Tootin' Through the Roof," and "Manhattan Murals," a barely disguised reworking of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train." While some of the longer works like "Reminiscing in Tempo," "Symphomaniac," and "The Tatooed Bride" were not favorites of Ellington's musicians, all are well played and worth one's time. The only weak spot is the inevitable medley of hits (to knock out a certain amount of audience requests at once). Wrapping the concert is a lively take of "How High the Moon" with trombonist Tyree Glenn switching to vibes, which also features a rousing tenor solo by Ben Webster, who had returned to Ellington's band the previous month. Considering the lack of commercial recordings in this period of Duke, Cornell University 1948 is a highly valuable recording and warrants enthusiastic attention from Ellington historians and fans.
The Great Concerts: Cornell University 1948 Review
by Ken Dryden