Masterpieces by Ellington
Duke Ellington – 1951
HIGHLIGHTS: “Mood Indigo”, “Sophisticated Lady”
If the concept and technology of the “album” had been invented just a few decades earlier, many legendary musicians—among them Robert Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, and Duke Ellington—would have an even greater reputation because, we can assume, these artists would have made a couple. Safe to say they would have been masterpieces, too. The non-classical musicians who hit their prime anywhere from the late ‘20s to the early ‘50s were the unfortunate victims of a pre-album world.
For all its worth, Masterpieces by Ellington might as well be the first actual album then, as far as I’m concerned. Duke sought to expand his palette by fully utilizing the expanded runtime of the 12” LP. As a result, the aptly titled Masterpieces consists of four lengthy standards that allow plenty of room for relaxed and inspired soloing.
The 15-minute version of “Mood Indigo” might be my favorite rendition of the eternal classic. The bumbling clarinet melody perfectly calls to mind a walk down a 1920s New York City street, yet it is relaxed and unhurried, without a care in the whole world. Meanwhile, the Duke’s piano provides the somber anchor for the whole tune, which takes advantage of its long runtime to go down plenty of interesting avenues: muted trumpet, talking trombone, and big band blasts.
The only thing that doesn’t work—on “Mood Indigo” and the rest of the album—are the occasional lead vocals, courtesy of Yvonne Lanauze. Ms. Lanauze, who I’ve never heard of, is a below average singer. I have never been a strong proponent of jazz with vocals anyways and this is no exception. The musicianship is what makes this album so great, so luckily the vocal breaks are few and far between.
The Duke reigned as king over the swing era and there truly is nothing more beautiful than a nice, slow swinging ballad. Both “Sophisticated Lady”—which also has vocals—and “The Tattooed Bride” feature swaying big band arrangements that range from sitting on a park bench to jitterbugging on the dance floor. The songs find beauty in their quieter moments though, clarinets and saxophones often leading the way down sunset sidewalks. And through it all, the master himself is there to remind us of his greatness, piano chords lifted straight from heaven.
When looking back on the 1950s, it’s easy to focus solely on the LPs released post ‘55, which is when the album started to gain traction as a valid artistic statement. But it is important not to overlook the first half of the decade, because you’ll most certainly be missing out.
Masterpieces by Ellington is one of my favorite albums of the ‘50s. It’s something that can be listened to at any time; the rare Instant Cheer Up record. It is almost something of a relic from another age; Ellington was already 50 when he and his orchestra recorded this. His perfect syncopated brand of swing was going out of fashion with the advent of bebop and its variants, and his last major artistic statement—the live Ellington at Newport—was only a couple years away. Yet Masterpieces is truly timeless.
Despite being the master of the 3-minute pop standard during his 1930s prime, Ellington was still able to cash in at the Dawn of the Album with a nice collection of tunes that represent perfectly all that he meant to music. It is as the title suggests, then, a masterpiece.