The end of the 20th century is a curse for critics, forced to make tidy, all-encompassing summations of the first 100 years of jazz. Critic Kevin Whitehead recently made that argument, and he's right, especially when it comes to Duke Ellington, who was born 100 years ago and went on to become one of the most important, and least definable, American composers of the century.
Jazz fans aching to explore the vast scope of Ellington's career and the multiple genres he investigated -- precisely what made his work so impressive -- have several recently released compact disc options. The much talked about 24-disc "Complete RCA/Victor Recordings" box set is an excellent overview, but the $400 price tag is daunting, almost guaranteed to keep all but the most extreme Ellington fan plowing through the jazz section. For the rest of us, the five records just reissued by Columbia/Legacy are superb: five exemplary documents of Ellington's best recordings.
All five recordings contain the original albums in full and feature sound quality improvements that, in some cases, are years overdue ("Such Sweet Thunder" is in stereo for the first time). Each album also includes several alternate takes, unreleased songs from the same sessions, new liner notes, photos and sometimes hilarious studio chatter (Duke scouring the room for Count Basie in the "Take the 'A' Train" session).
"Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete)" -- two CDs loaded with new material from one of his most legendary live performances -- is probably the best pick for Ellington aficionados. It's the kind of album that rights a notorious wrong: As producer Phil Shaap points out in the excellent liner notes, the original "Ellington at Newport" record only featured a few cuts from the concert that revitalized his sagging career. (The rest of the album was assembled from studio recordings.) The new release sequences the entire concert in the correct order -- including saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' famous 27-chorus solo on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which inspired a near riot in the audience -- and then adds the studio recordings at the end of the second disc. The new material is worth the wait. And it's still amazing to listen to the pandemonium in the crowd during and after Gonsalves' solo (can anyone imagine riot-prevention announcements like those that follow "Diminuendo" at a jazz concert nowadays?).
The rest of the reissues are equally enchanting. "Meets Count Basie" is exhilarating big band swing, with Duke and Basie's bands together in one studio, sounding like a tremendous, impossibly in-tune, 40-person beast. "Black, Brown and Beige," the large-scale suite that Ellington described in 1943 as a "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro," is absolutely majestic (the added track of Mahalia Jackson's a cappella "Come Sunday" is worth the disc's price itself). The outtakes on "Anatomy of a Murder," the soundtrack to Otto Preminger's 1959 courtroom drama classic, are fascinating, since so much of Ellington's ambitious, constantly shifting score didn't make it into the movie.
The five discs, as good as they are, don't even touch the enormity of Ellington's varied body of work. But since it's doubtful that anything could -- even a $400 24-disc set -- old and new Ellington listeners alike would be hard-pressed to find five better places to start.