Duke Ellington – At the Cotton Club ★★★★★

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Duke Ellington (p), Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams (t), Rex Stewart (cnt), Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown (tb), Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney (reeds), Fred Guy (g), Billy Taylor (b), Sonny Greer (d) and Ivie Anderson (v. Rec. 1938 and 1939)

This double CD set of tracks taken from broadcasts from the Cotton Club between March – May 1938, three tracks Ellington’s Swedish tour in 1939 and a brief DVD film clip of Ellington at the Cotton Club get their stars not so much for the music, but for the historical significance of this collection. While some of these tracks had been previously released on vinyl (Jazz Panorama, for example), the six broadcasts from the Cotton Club (in various degrees of completeness) provide a valuable window into Ellington’s musical world of the period. One of the bona fide jazz greats and musical greats irrespective of genre of the 20th century, there is a tendency today to laud everything he produced as works of genius, or at the very least, works of aspiring genius. In fact, musically, Ellington went off the boil creatively in the mid-1930s, following the death of his mother on 25 May 1935. It devastated him, the New York Amsterdam News going as far to report that “the impression was given that Duke Ellington had cancelled all future engagements on account of the death of his mother,” as he withdrew for a while from the public eye.

Signs that he was recovering came with ‘Reminiscing in Tempo’ (dedicated to his mother) but his prodigious creativity had certainly slowed. Any improvement he was making was drastically set back when his father died on 28 October 1937. Musically, then, the Ellington band was treading water during this period, there were hits – ‘Solitude’, for example – but these tracks illustrate just how far behind the competition Ellington had fallen, in terms of arranging, rhythm and concept. The Goodman band had emerged, in Francis Newton’s words as “the Queen of the musical battlefield” and you only have to contrast Fletcher Henderson’s dynamic ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ or the svelte ‘Down South Camp Meeting’ for Goodman with Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ on this set (both versions) whose uncomfortable, syncopated phrasing was more appropriate to 1928 than 1938, to get a sense of the creative hiatus of this period.

Much of Ellington’s repertoire here comes from the early 1930s or earlier – even the piece entitled “Swing Session,” a solo piano broadcast from Saturday Night Swing Club on 8 May 1937, turns out to be none other than ‘Soda Fountain Rag’, Ellington’s first composition. Of course, Ellington would bounce back – and how. Following his tour of Sweden in 1939, where three rare tracks from the Konserthuset on 29 April that year are added at the end of CD 2, Ellington would be rejuvenated. He broke with his management (Irving Mills), ended his association with Columbia, moving to RCA Victor, and brought in three key signings, Ben Webster on tenor sax, Jimmy Blanton on bass and the arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn, and the rest, as they say is history. The wonder of it all is how completely he reinvented himself, leaving these tracks as testimony to how far musically he moved to achieve the undisputed heights achieved by the 1940-41 band.

– Stuart Nicholson