Tuesday, January 2, 2007

January 2 - Duke Ellington Small Groups

The great cellist Pablo Casals played some Bach every day. It was essential to him as a musician. I take the same view of Duke Ellington. If you love jazz, you need to listen to Ellington regularly. Daily? What's not to like?

Fortunately, you'd have to listen for a lot of days to hear everything that America's greatest composer created. From the days of the Cotton Club through the height of the Swing Era to the end of his life, he was ceaselessly creative and inventive. This week, I took a look at some of the "small group" recordings by Duke Ellington and members of his orchestra in 1936 and '37.

Commercial considerations may have driven the making of these recordings, but such was the mastery of Duke and his men that these relaxed, informal sessions yielded swing with polish, joy and an irresistibly propulsive beat. Music to pat your foot to, as Count Basie said.

Duke Ellington, Cat Anderson, and Sidney De Paris, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946

Three of these sides are rarely heard - "Jazz A La Carte", "Frolic Sam" and "Sugar Hill Shim-Sham". They feature, respectively, clarinetist Barney Bigard and trumpeters Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart. Wrapping up the set was the first recording of the Ellington standard "Caravan" in an arrangement that will surprise you if you only know the Ellington orchestra's more elaborate take on this well-loved song.

Duke Ellington: The Duke's Men, Volume 1 Duke Ellington: The Duke's Men, Volume 2

The recordings come from a 1991 Sony Legacy release, The Duke's Men: Ellington Small Groups, Volume 1. This 2-CD set, with 45 tracks from 1934 to 1938, is now out of print, and hard to find, except perhaps as a used item. A second 2-CD set, with a like number of tracks from '38 and '39, appears to have met the same fate.

Sony's Legacy series was an extraordinary undertaking, and the label deserves the highest marks for the commitment they demonstrated in making thousands of classic tracks available again. But according to recent news reports, SonyBMG has cut back significantly on its continuing commitment to these products. This is a tragedy. SonyBMG, the company resulting from the merger of Sony and BMG, controls an almost unimaginable treasure of jazz recordings. The great program of reissues that Sony and, to a lesser but still important extent, BMG undertook in the past 20 years will be lost if these products go out of print. The long-term decline of CD sales doesn't bode well for the future of these packages. If SonyBMG isn't prepared to manufacture and distribute them, they should at least make them available to online purchasers. Sadly, at least in Canada, ths isn't yet the case - at least, not with respect to the Ellington tracks featured on today's broadcast.

Over on the iTunes Canada store, you can buy 42 of the 43 cuts from Volume 2 here, but you can't buy the whole album. (Note: you must have iTunes installed on your computer in order for this, and other, iTunes links to work.) However, all four of the cuts from today's playlist come from Volume 1, not Volume 2, and SonyBMG hasn't chosen to make it available through iTunes Canada - or any other online service doing business in this country. So, at least for now, if you're shopping in Canada, you can't get these tracks online from the Sony Legacy release.

All is not lost, though. Because the copyright on these recordings has expired, other music companies have been able to clean up and reissue these old tracks, and these companies have made them available at iTunes Canada. I've created an "iMix" - a playlist of today's tracks. Click here and download them for less than four bucks. If you don't have these tracks in your collection, get 'em now, and check out the other wonderful Ellington recordings on iTunes while you're there.

If you have access to the iTunes USA store, the situation is much better: both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are available for $US16.99 each for downloading - that's the equivalent of 4 CD's, nearly 100 tracks, for around $US34. But only if you have access to iTunes USA - and you need a US-registered credit card in order to establish an account there. This leaves virtually all Canadians out of the picture.

It's hard to understand why the both albums are available on the iTunes USA store, but not in Canada. Hopefully Apple and SonyBMG can address this and make both these wonderful albums available to Canadian customers. The fight against piracy only makes sense if legitimate tracks are made available quickly and conveniently. It doesn't help when products are kept off the market for reasons that are difficult to figure out. As CD's of SonyBMG's wonderful Legacy releases gradually disappear from the stores (and as the stores themselves disappear), being able to purchase the music online becomes less of a frill and more of a necessity. Get it together, people!

But is there any hope left for CD buyers who want to enjoy this wonderful music? Yes - thanks to the great folks at Mosaic Records, the world's best reissue label. They've just released Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions, a 7-CD set that covers all the tracks in both of the SonyBMG sets and a great deal more - a total of 173 tracks!

Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions

At $US119 plus shipping, it's not an inexpensive choice, but you can't go wrong with Mosaic. I've purchased more than 75 of their box sets, and they're magnificent, although I wish they were still releasing vinyl. The sound quality is always the best possible, and the large-format (12x12) booklets abound with great black-and-white photography, full documentation of the tracks and the players, and first-rate essays. Mosaic licenses recordings for limited quantities, which means that when they sell out of the 10,000 copies of this set that are being manufactured, there won't be any more. Most of the best Mosaic releases have sold out, and I think this one will, too. If you're interested, get your order in fast!

Feast or famine, then? As long as there's Ellington music to enjoy, you won't starve.

Further Reading: For a brief introduction to Duke's life and work, Wikipedia is a good place to start. Stanley Dance's famous biography, The World of Duke Ellington is great reading. There are websites and books galore. But start by listening to Duke's legacy - regularly.

Next time on JAZZ.FM: Art Pepper

Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper

Tuesday, January 16 between 9 and 10 AM (EST) on Ralph's morning show. Listen in!

(Remember, if you have iTunes on your computer, click here to listen to JAZZ.FM91's live webcast.)