Duke Ellington had a wit and air that was only surpassed by the brilliant use of his greatest instrument: his Orchestra. He also composed over 1,500 songs, so this is in no way a comprehensive "essentials" list. Here are just quintessential pieces and interpretations that you just gotta get hip to, lest you die a culture-less swine.
from Money Jungle
Money Jungle is a jazz-head's wet dream. Not only does it involve three of the undisputed masters of "Black Classical Music" — Duke Ellington, drummer Max Roach and one-show Ellington bassist and composer extraordinaire Charles Mingus. But the modern techniques and reputation of Roach and Mingus help propel the elder Duke into their realm ... and he excels! Proving that he can swing just as hard as the younger virtuosos and still show them a thing or two. Point of interest: Mingus' excitement to be recording with The Duke is palpable. Consider his hip-as-shit, double-stop outro.
"Take the 'A' Train"
from The Time Life Giants of Jazz Compilation
Written by Ellington arranger and collaborator Billy "Swee' Pea" Strayhorn on his way to meet Duke for an audition of sorts, "Take the 'A' Train" became the band's unofficial theme piece and jumpstarted Ellington's second wave of output. Strayhorn would become Ellington's greatest collaborator (other than his Orchestra, as a whole) and companion. Point of interest: Strayhorn was so fresh and so clean, to say nothing of his musical genius, that despite his open homosexuality, Lena Horne longed to marry the man who penned such classics as "Chelsea Bridge," "Lush Life," "Satin Doll," "UMMG" and "Hey, Buddy Bolden."
"Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me"
from Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday
on Columbia Vol. 10
Originally intended as a concerto for trumpeter Cootie Williams, "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me" is a painfully, fitting canvas for the soured and smoky emoting of Lady Day. Contrary to the tired and trite comparisons of Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday and vice versa, no one, not one motherfucker — to borrow one of Billie's most-employed, choice characterizations — is better suited to deliver Ellington's melodic diatribe to the coquettish but contemplative nature of Bob Russell's lyrics.
"East St. Louis Toodle-oo"
from The Bethlehem Years Vol. 1
Upon its release in 1976, The Ellington Orchestra's recording (Feb. 7 and 8, 1956) and reworking of what had, by then, become canonized standards was met with lukewarm appreciation. However, despite the criticism of the lagging tempo, especially on "Toodle-oo," Bubber Miley's plunger technique is played to perfection, perhaps even surpassed by violinist/vocalist/trumpeter Ray Nance. The slower tempo actually makes for a more humid, sexual, all hot-and-bothered feel to this "jungle" tune. Just try not to imagine yourself all zooted up in your cat clothes, strolling the promenade, flipping a quarter and swinging your wallet chain at all the fine kittens you meet. (That may not mean anything to you, but your grandma just got all wet.)
"In a Sentimental Mood"
from Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
This is the tune that folks ignorant to Ellington or Coltrane's catalogs will most likely know due to its rapturously, melancholy statement of the main theme, Ellington's exquisite seesaw accompaniment, Coltrane's simplistic playing (by his standards) and its revelatory beauty. Point of interest: Ellington claimed to have improvised this one at an after-party where two young women were fighting over a mutual male interest. To "pacify" all of the injured parties, he took to the piano and ad-libbed this piece, which, if this story is true, is one of the greatest feats of any modern, musical mind as its popularity, unrivaled beauty and placement in the Ellington canon attests.
"I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)"
from Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington
From the half-timed, stutter-stepping intro of the heavy-ringed fingers of Monk comes one of the most exquisite and expressive versions of the Ellington classic. This is one of those tunes, like "How Long Has This Been Going On," or "I'd Rather Go Blind," that the mere recitation of the title itself conjures the desired emotion that the melody seeks to pull from the listener. It's a goddamn heartbreaker and no one can put it across like Thelonious Monk. Point of interest: note the turn of emotion when the band picks up the tempo and the piece's lovelorn qualities become understood and almost celebrated.
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