Like most artists of heroic proportion, Duke Ellington’s sweep is difficult to comprehend. His output of original compositions and co-compositions is estimated to number between 1,000 and 3,000 works, ranging from starkly simple pieces to complex adventures in long composition, from the lowest low-down blues (the swamp water virtually runs off the notes) to the most urbane renditions of the big city (its people, its architecture, its pulse, and its dreamy, private situations). His grand aesthetic vision was to bring work songs, spirituals, blues, and ragtime together with jazz, that aesthetic idiom of great latitude. Ellington combined his sources with more blistering force, imagination, and understatement than anyone had before him, inventing variations and grooves along the way. He produced music that would not only extend the reaches of jazz but would become one of the largest and most original bodies of American music ever created. Ellington’s early classics, produced between 1927 and 1940, have been often and rightly praised; his late work has been largely neglected. But the late work offers plenty of masterworks for the listener of sufficiently refined taste, or the one willing to sophisticate his or her taste. Put simply, Ellington’s late work is largely a secret treasure. Anyone purporting to be civilized, or who desires to be, should have as many late Ellington recordings as possible in his or her audio collection.
In conventional jazz writing, Ellington is said to have reached his musical peak in the three years of 1940 to 1942, when there is supposed to have been an unimpeachable balance between composition and personnel, resulting in stellar renditions and eloquent improvisation. But Ellington’s ongoing evolution, from 1943 to the end of his life, runs counter to the standard critical take. In that last 30 years of band-leading and composing, Ellington achieved a remarkable range and authority. This was the result of both the time he had spent in the musical game and the vast technical and human experience his players were able to bring to the music, resulting in an abundance of varied tonal depth, emotional expansion, and subtlety—all of which is revealed in an increasing number of reissues and remixes now available. These recordings, stretching from the ’40s to the ’70s, demonstrate just how brilliantly Ellington and his band developed, decade by decade, almost right up to his death in 1974…
…Jazz Party (1959), with its variety of material and unexpected guests whom Ellington makes compatible, is unusual even for Ellington. It is an example of the ever-surprising repertoire that became characteristic of late Ellington from 1959 to the end of his music-making. The recording contains an intriguing six-part suite (Ellington’s first six-part suite was the masterful 1948 “The Liberian Suite,” on Ellington Uptown), some witty blues writing for concert percussion and jazz orchestra, and a classic Strayhorn vehicle—”Upper Manhattan Medical Group”—used to challenge an inspired Dizzy Gillespie who appears in a guest slot. There are also a couple of luscious, humorous features for Johnny Hodges, and a rousing blues finale in which the great Oklahoma blues singer Jimmy Rushing and the Bop King Gillespie are propelled by the soft-shoe strutting and declarative riffs of a brass-and-reed ensemble clearly enjoying the weight of its groove powers.
The 1966 Far East Suite (RCA Victor) finds Ellingtonia enriching itself with new Third World influences. (This remix, which brings absolute clarity to it, is an example of contemporary technological gifts.) This is probably the best jazz-orchestra recording of that decade, the most forcefully successful blending of jazz and outside music. The musicians are in masterful and inspired form, which allows Ellington to effortlessly remake his palette once again, this time with the influences of the Middle East and Asia. The superb And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA Victor) is a salute to the then recently deceased Strayhorn, which finds Ellington the pianist outplaying everyone else on the album. Like the hero in winter, with death and retirement taking many of his finest voices, Ellington continued to make superior music, as revealed by the 1971 “Goutelas Suite” found on The Ellington Suites (Pablo). He remained busy remaking his past and taking in new influences, as revealed on The New Orleans Suite (Atlantic Records) and the especially impressive very late Ellington of Afro-Eurasian Eclipse(Fantasy). There is no thrill in the arts like hearing a grand master expand his palette, reinvigorate himself, and take on all of the challenges specific to an era. Ellington said to a relative when asked what he thought of the new generation: “It’s not about this generation or that. In Art, the issue is regeneration.” These records make that case as powerfully as it has ever been made.
Into the face of death Duke Ellington wrote music until the end, and we are all the better for it.