It's a question as old as time itself: Can you have too much of a good thing? On the occasion of last year's Duke Ellington centennial celebration, RCA -- which has the greatest single trove of Ellington's protean career -- posed that question with a 24-CD boxed set. Columbia Records -- which may have the second-greatest trove of Ellingtonia -- took a more modest approach, reissuing newly restored versions of some of Ellington's finest individual Columbia albums, and compiling this wallet-friendly 3-CD
The Columbia discs break down into Duke's three stints with the label or its subsidiaries. The first disc, 1927-1940, features the greatest hits of a period when Ellington recorded simultaneously for two other labels, often recording the same material for all three. Early versions of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and "Black and Tan Fantasy" are here, as are such
magnificent lesser-known pieces as "Braggin' in Brass" and "Portrait of the Lion." This building of the great Ellington orchestra is beautifully detailed in these 25 tracks -- without an inessential one in the
bunch - in which Ellington builds the band and the sound that would sustain his career. The last track on the disc, "Sophisticated Lady," features Billy Strayhorn's first chart for the band.
Ellington's greatest recordings are probably his early 1940s sides for RCA. The second disc, 1947-1952, picks the band up after the War and the mid-'40s recording ban. Players have come (Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves) and gone, bebop has taken hold, and attitudes have changed (the big band era was over). But Ellington is still hard at work,
crafting more sophisticated, ambitious pieces -- some of the tracks here are parts of extended works -- along with novelties and vocals. Columbia has the cream of that period. Hard-swinging pieces are still in evidence -- "Stomp, Look and Listen" and "Three Cent Stomp" both, well, stomp -- but there is also an introduction of the solemn majesty of late Ellington, with "I Like the Sunrise" and "The Tattooed Bride."
The third disc, 1956-1962, begins with Ellington's triumphant appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, where the world took notice of the fact that America's greatest bandleader was still -- years after the death of the big band era-leading America's greatest band. Oddly, for a set titled ESSENTIAL, the night's crowning performance, "Diminuendo and
Crescendo in Blue," is missing in favor of "Jeep's Blues." Otherwise, this, again, is a well-plotted course through a fascinating period, with fabulous collaborations (Mahalia Jackson, Rosemary Clooney, Count Basie), vibrant work for TV and movies ("Flirtibird," from ANATOMY OF A MURDER, "The Theme from Asphalt Jungle"), and robust features for his soloists (Clark Terry's "Perdido"). For a revelation, listen to "Blue Rose," a 1956 piece written for Rosemary Clooney. As saxophonist Donald Harrison has pointed out, it's a roadmap for John Coltrane's groundbreaking "Giant Steps."
How much is too much? Three CDs of lovingly produced, well-chosen Ellington is never too much.