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Duke Ellington Complete Capitol Recordings - Mosaic 5 Cd Box Set

When I was ten years old I bought my first record, a 78 rpm single of "Jazz Pizzicato." A year or two later I discovered Les Paul & Mary Ford, and began buying their singles -- also 78s. "Tiger Rag" was my first. I bought all of Les & Mary's 10" Capitol albums. (And, in passing, I recommend highly Capitol's boxed Les Paul set, The Legend and the Legacy, which contains every single and album cut Les Paul and Mary Ford made for that label, plus radio excerpts from the fifties.) Les Paul was of course a major pioneer in modern music technology, as well as a superb guitarist. He virtually invented the electric guitar, and he did invent both multitracking and the speeding and slowing of tapes for various musical effects.

My next major discovery was the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra (reviewed elsewhere in these pages). By now I was in my early teens and discovering jazz. And inevitably I discovered Duke Ellington. My first Duke Ellington album was another 10" LP -- DUKE'S MIXTURE, a "House Party Series" release from Columbia. I played it over and over, reveling in its fascinating melodies and rich harmonies. Ellington's arrangements, his voicings, were unique: immediately identifiable and completely unlike those of other arrangers or band leaders.

Most "big bands" in jazz/dance music of the thirties and forties consisted of "sections": two or three trumpets and several trombones in the brass section, and a sax section of three to five men, playing -- perhaps doubling on different instruments -- alto, tenor and baritone saxes as well as clarinets. Plus piano, bass and drums (guitar/banjo optional). Most bands used arrangements which pitted sections against each other in repeated riffs while a soloist played the lead. The scores for these bands did not have separate lines for each sax or brass instrument. All the saxes played the same note (perhaps in different octaves), all the brass played similarly "as one," although occasionally secondary instruments played harmonies to the lead instruments' melodies. But Ellington didn't do that. He might team a bass clarinet up with a trumpet and a trombone, each playing a contrapuntal line so that together they wove a sensuous and exotic melody. Not all of Ellington's basic melodies are that extraordinary, but as voiced by Ellington they have become memorably unique. A song like "Creole Love Call," for example, with a soaring wordless vocal, is immediately and identifiably Ellingtonian because of its unique voicings.

I started buying Ellington records in the early fifties, and in 1953 Duke Ellington began recording for Capitol. Between 1953 and 1955 Ellington released five albums and a number of singles on Capitol. (Subsequently he made two albums for Bethlehem in 1956, and then returned to Columbia for a long run of albums that sparked a "comeback" of sorts for Ellington, and a turn away from attempts to get pop hits, a problem with many of his Capitol singles.) I bought each of those albums, starting with the 10" PREMIERED BY ELLINGTON (H440). The others were THE DUKE PLAYS ELLINGTON (T477) (Ellington playing piano in a trio setting with bass and drums), ELLINGTON '55 (W521) (mislabelled, since much of it was made of material not recorded in 1955), DANCE TO THE DUKE (T637) (despite its title not an attempt to do pop dance music -- and my favorite at the time), and ELLINGTON SHOWCASE (T679). As I played these albums many times I came to identify each with specific characteristics, and each developed an overall character for me. DANCE TO THE DUKE almost rocked -- son Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" had a raucous quality -- but the album also included the perennial Ellington classic, "Caravan," with a gorgeous Ray Nance violin solo. (Nance was an undersung hero of the Ellington Orchestra: he played a puckish trumpet, and a powerful "jazz fiddle" violin to rival Stuff Smith, plus he sang engagingly in his own style -- vaguely like that of Joe Carol -- but Ellington rarely featured him as a vocalist, and as a trumpet-player he had to compete with Clark Terry and Cat Anderson, a high note specialist, for solo space. But on DANCE TO THE DUKE Nance finally got his due, and reveled in it.) The album ranged from another Ellington classic, "C-Jam Blues," to the exotic "Bakiff." Hardly a "dance album" at all, but a powerful album of unique Ellington jazz.

CDs arrived in the mid-eighties and immediately prompted major programs at many labels to reissue their jazz catalogues, bringing back "into print" many long-unavailable (on vinyl) albums. But a variety of curious holes remain in those catalogues, and one is the lack of Duke Ellington CDs from Capitol. There is only one, PIANO REFLECTIONS (THE DUKE PLAYS ELLINGTON augmented with three additional tracks). That album, like the entire Capitol/Blue Note jazz reissue program, was supervised/produced by Michael Cuscuna. Walk into any store with a large jazz CD selection and you can find literally hundreds of different Ellington albums. But only one will be on Capitol. Why? It is my very strong suspicion that Cuscuna didn't think much of Ellington's recordings for Capitol -- and didn't think any of the other albums deserved reissue. (Those albums weren't given good reviews at the time.)

But Cuscuna wears another hat: co-owner of Mosaic Records. And while he didn't consider any of Ellington's other Capitol albums worth reissuing, he did apparently feel Ellington's total body of work for Capitol deserved to be heard. Thus, this Mosaic release which places everything Ellington recorded for Capitol, in chronological order, on five CDs.


Once again Mosaic has deconstructed the albums it has reissued. To listen to DANCE TO THE DUKE (my favorite of the Capitol albums, you'll recall), I'd have to use a CD changer and program it to play disc 4, track 8; disc 1, track 10; disc 5, track 3; disc 2, track 15; disc 4, track 16; disc 3, track 16; disc 4, track 1; and disc 3, track 12. (The actual tracks are "C-Jam Blues," "Orson," "Caravan," "Kinda Dukish," "Bakiff," "Frivolous Banta," "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," and "Night Time.") Too much work, especially if one doesn't have a changer one can program. Not every album is as thoroughly broken up as this -- at least PREMIERED BY ELLINGTON's tracks are all on the first CD, but severely out of order and intermixed with other tracks -- but none exists as an uninterrupted block of tracks, much less in their original order. While I wouldn't want to go so far as to claim the original album tracking order was perfect, I do believe some thought went into both compatibility and variety in the assembling of those albums in the fifties. That thought has been discarded by Mosaic.

But it gets worse. Those five albums account for a total of only 46 separate tracks. But this Mosaic collection contains 96 tracks -- fifty more! And they are intermixed with the others. A few are alternate takes, or versions recorded with different soloists at different times, but the vast majority are the singles, or putative singles. And most of them are pretty awful. Many of them use non-Ellington arrangements (in the fifties Ellington tried other arrangers, like Buck Clayton and Dick Vance, who simply couldn't hold a candle to him), and most are shaped around pedestrian vocal performances. Sadly, all too many were attempts to score a pop-chart hit, sometimes with versions of contemporary hits. Thus we have "Isle of Capri," as arranged by Gerald Wilson -- a blot on the reputations of both Wilson (a competent but unexciting arranger) and Ellington. Even more embarrassing is the "Bunny Hop Mambo," which is exactly what the name implies, the "Bunny Hop" done as a mambo. Without question, this stuff marks the low point in Ellington's long, and largely distinguished career. Why resurrect it, and mix it in with the album material, all of which is significantly better?

I have to wonder if Cuscuna isn't revealing his contempt for Ellington's Capitol recordings even while scrupulously making all of them available for "collectors." These weren't worth reissuing in the commercial market, but here they are for you, Collectors -- and we'll even throw in the swill! But most of us will not buy this set as "collectors," but as fans of Ellington's music. As such, even if most of us have never heard the original LPs, we've been done a disservice.

How would I have produced this set? Given the basic premise -- all the Capitol recordings by Duke Ellington -- I would have grouped them thematically. I would have first reissued sequentially the original albums, although not on single CDs, of course, and time limitations might have required me to break an album between two CDs, putting perhaps two and a half on each CD. I would then have followed with separate CDs devoted to the singles, ordered chronologically, and -- separately -- the alternate takes and unused takes. (Another course would have been to tag the alternate takes and unissued pieces to the original albums with which they were best associated, as "bonus tracks.")

Rock reissue producers seem to be considerably more sophisticated on this score; none that I can think of offhand have taken the relentless chronological approach so favored by Cuscuna and a few other jazz reissue producers. There is only one thing more irritating to a music listener than this deconstructive approach and that is the use of up to half a dozen alternative or incomplete takes of the same piece, one after another -- another common device of jazz reissue producers, especially when dealing with the work of someone like Charlie Parker. Students of the music may value the subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in each take, but for the rest of us the effect is non- or un-musical and potentially tedious.

Quite frankly I regard Mosaic as the label of last resort: When jazz material I want exists nowhere else (on CD), I will buy it on Mosaic. But I know that fondly remembered albums will be dismembered by Mosaic, and that the Mosaic collection may well present me with a frustrating and disappointing experience. And newcomers to this material will encounter it in a "dead" state, stripped of all original context and made academic and relatively lifeless in comparison to its original presentation.

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