Duke Ellington recorded for Brunswick from 1926 to 1931, the period in which his great talent and great orchestra first flowered, whether the band was recording under his own name or such pseudonyms as the Washingtonians or the Jungle Band. The earliest recordings are highlighted by the presence of trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton, whose brilliant work with plunger mutes for vocal effects did much to define the early sound–which, in turn, rapidly evolved and expanded with the additions of Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams. While the band's repertoire included many blues and popular songs, its distinctive identity emerges from early renditions of such trademark pieces as "East St. Louis Toodle-O," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," and "Mood Indigo." By the end of the period covered in this set, Ellington's ambitious later suites–some of them CD-length–are portended in the elegant extended composition "Creole Rhapsody," his clearly superior contribution to the symphonic jazz movement.
These distinctive small-group sessions, featuring Duke Ellington as pianist in a blues context, are part of a group of recordings issued under the confusing titles Back to Back and Side by Side, and further reissued under the not particularly distinctive name of Blues Summit. But there should be no confusion about the high quality of music that came out of these sessions – it is all "cooking with gas" as the expression goes. From the jazz world, it would be difficult to find more profound soloists on traditional blues numbers than the Duke or his longtime collaborator Johnny Hodges, who does some of the most soulful playing of his career here.
In the jazz world, Vienna is about as far from New York's Lincoln Center as you can get. It follows that Mathias Rüegg's Vienna Art Orchestra has about as much in common with Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center big band as a Sacher torte has with a Hostess Cup Cake; while they share some ingredients, the Austrian product satisfies on a more profound level. By the turn of the century, the Lincoln Center paradigm defined the jazz big band as a finished concept – locked into the past, serving mostly as a repertory ensemble. The VAO, on the other hand, while hardly ignoring traditional jazz verities, lives in the present and looks to the future.
One might think this disc would focus on the more romantic side of the Ellington-Strayhorn catalog. But don't let the title fool you. Mathias Ruegg's large band gives tunes like "Red Garter" and "Smada" a playful, blasting treatment. Particularly noteworthy is the transformation of "Mood Indigo" into something of a drunkard's lament, with a deep, wobbling trombone line. It's a labor of love that some Ellington purists might find a bit appalling, but it deserves kudos for its new approach.
This modest, single-CD compilation remains an excellent introduction to Duke Ellngton's work as composer and bandleader, two indistinguishable roles. It includes many of the original recordings of his most familiar songs, reaching back to the 1930s for the swinging "It Don't Mean a Thing" and the exotic "Caravan" and forward to the 1950s for "Satin Doll." The first 10 tracks appear here in their original monaural sound, and they're an authentic account of the early years of Ellington's marvelous band–with the rich, smooth saxophone textures of Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, the soaring muted trumpets of Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, and the unadorned musicality of Ivie Anderson's voice. If you want a CD with just the most famous tunes, or if you want to introduce someone to Ellington's music in all its regal brilliance, this is a good place to start.