Duke Ellington ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD Box set (Atlantic/Rhino) 3/5

The gargantuan output of Duke Ellington spanning several decades was bound to include some missing items and this box set brings together some of the sides that the Duke recorded for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label during the 1960s when the orchestra was consolidating its reputation as well as recording some fine suite material elsewhere, notably ‘Far East Suite’ and ‘His mother called him Bill’. One surprise omission given the above, is that the now hard to find ‘Sinatra and Ellington’ collaboration album is not included here and that is a great pity since it is largely Ellington material which Sinatra did not attempt to replicate in a live setting. However, there is plenty to keep Ellingtonia fans content and one of the welcome inclusions is the ‘Jazz violin session’; between Duke and Stéphane Grapelli from 1963, that only surfaced in 1976. This is very much Grapelli as a soloist and not with string accompaniment and as such the tunes sound totally fresh as on ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ and ‘In a sentimental mood’. Another treat in store is actually the Ellington take on the ‘Mary Poppins’ film soundtrack, which has the Ellington band in prime form, especially on ‘A spoonful of sugar’ and this really works in a jazz context just as John Coltrane reworked ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ which also features here in a big band treatment. Two albums which go hand in hand are ‘Ellington ‘65’ and ‘Ellington ‘66’. Taken together they are a bit of a mixed bunch with an eclectic selection of songs that at worst enter easy listening territory on numbers such as ‘Blowin’ in the wind’, but on the other hand more reflective treatment of pieces like ‘Danke schön’. Ideally they should have been coupled onto one CD with extra space left for other recordings. One re-issue that could certainly have been dispensed with in this collection is ‘Will big bands ever come back’, an ill-advised attempt by the Duke to recreate the swing era of other bands. Quite why anyone would have wanted to hear this is beyond this writer, but it does not fit well with the work he recorded as a whole and is an instantly forgettable part of an otherwise highly distinguished discography. it would have been far better to include ‘Afro-Bossa’ which hinted at some of the other longer suite works that Duke was involved in during the same period. Clearly some of the projects here were commercially driven, hence the short timing on many of the numbers. No extra tracks or additional notes to place the albums in a historical context.

Tim Stenhouse