Duke Ellington

The Swing Era

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This DVD is a five-star, must-own, beat-the-bushes-if-you-have-to but do-anything-you-need-to-get-it priority for any fan of Duke Ellington. And what's more amazing is that, in contrast to some concert special of a later era, the contents of this DVD were done as filler -- hopefully profitable filler, but filler between actual programs -- by its producers, and almost certainly were done as a promotional effort by Ellington, who was touring in 1952 with the most impressive band lineup he'd had in years. It's no accident that the material here coincides and overlaps with The Seattle Concert, his only official live recording with RCA Victor. For those coming in late, the contents of this DVD come from the vaults of Snader Telescriptions. In the early '50s, television was still a new medium far from having entrenched programming patterns or revenue streams, and it wasn't clear that every spot between programs would be filled by commercials. Companies such as Snader moved into the field with performance clips, akin to the "soundies" that used to run in movie theaters, and the audio transcriptions that used to be provided to radio stations for a fee. Ellington and Lionel Hampton were just two of the major artists who filmed live performance clips for Snader (others included the folk-pop group the Weavers, whose work in this area was released by Bear Family Records). In any case, the disc opens with Ellington and his band circa 1951-1952, doing their current book, which included "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude" "Caravan," and "The Mooch." In essence, these clips are almost like video transcriptions of The Legendary Seattle Concert that RCA Victor recorded officially that same year. Soloists include tenor sax legend Harry Carney, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, Ray Nance on violin, Willie Cook on trumpet, Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, Russell Procope on alto sax, Cat Anderson on trumpet, Quentin Jackson on slide trombone, Willie Smith on alto, and Juan Tizol on valve trombone. Jimmy Grissom turns in a beautiful vocal performance on "Solitude," but the highlight of the entire selection is Louie Bellson's featured spot on "The Hawk Talks," which could teach a lot of rock drummers a thing or two (or three) about soloing -- he's fast, inventive, and loud, but always tasteful. And Nance knew how to play for the cameras, as is revealed in his trumpet solo in the same number.

One wonders how much these clips were shown, or how widely they were seen (or by whom -- in 1952, a television set was still a major expense, beyond the reach of most people below the middle class), or how much they helped promote Ellington, but watching this disc 52 years later, viewers will be glad they were made! The Ellington portion of the program is rounded out with the much older soundie "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," featuring Ivie Anderson, from 1941; "Blip-Blip" from the same year, featuring Nance and Anderson; and from a year earlier, "Flamingo" featuring Herb Jeffries (whose voice will melt you) on vocals and Johnny Hodges on alto sax. Also included are "Cotton Tail" (credited as "Hot Chocolate") with Ben Webster on tenor sax solo and some phenomenal dancing and "C Jam Blues," with Nance on violin, Rex Stewart on trumpet, Webster on tenor sax, Joe Nanton on slide trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, and Sonny Greer soloing on drums, all with some very pretty ladies watching -- the last is grainy and scratched, and the disc would still be a bargain at twice what it's being sold for. The 11 Lionel Hampton telescriptions that follow are in great shape, and show off their leader's skills not just on the vibraphone, but also as a drummer and a pianist (on "T.V. Special"), surrounded by top players in his touring band circa 1952, doing the shimmering "Midnight Sun," the bouncy "Beaulah's Boogie," the sultry "Love You Like Mad, Love You Like Crazy," and the quirky "Ding Dong Baby," plus the pounding "Cobb's Idea," the bracing "Vibe's Boogie," the surging, suggestively choreographed "Bongo Interlude," and the brisk "Air Mail Special," all finishing with the romping and stomping "Slide, Hamp, Slide." The disc comes with a simple, easy-to-use menu that includes a "play all" function and also a list of all songs and individual access to each track. The sound is excellent, in better shape than some of the video, but it's impossible to complain about anything here, even the occasional transfer glitch that shows up as a momentary digital artifact. On the plus side, incidentally, this is a true international release, with the program presented in NTSC (i.e., U.S. television format) on one side and PAL (i.e., European television format) on the other.