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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Gene Hyde

JUNE 7, 1999: 

Duke Ellington, Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete) (Columbia Legacy)

This year marks the centennial anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth. Born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899, Ellington established himself as jazz's most important bandleader and composer throughout the '30s and '40s. His mid-'40s orchestra, the so-called Blanton Webster Band (due to the presence of bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster) was Ellington's greatest outfit, a stunning collection of soloists and ensemble players. In Ellington's capable hands, they produced a series of masterpieces.

Yet the late '40s and early '50s were dark years for the maestro. Key band members left for solo careers, and the rise of bebop led to an emphasis on smaller group recordings within the jazz community. Ellington kept his orchestra intact, but end up playing gigs like the Aquacade, a forerunner of the Ice Capades, to pay the bills. His compositional creativity was ebbing, and the future seemed dim.

Then came the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, when Ellington's band nearly caused a riot. As the fiery tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves ripped through 27 choruses of "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue," the crowd sprang to its feet in collective pandemonium. Ellington's career was revitalized, and soon he would appear on the cover of Time magazine. His creativity flowed anew, and he recorded a number of excellent records and received universal praise until his death in 1974. Ellington's career was so transformed that he later remarked, "I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival."

Columbia recorded this 1956 concert, and the resulting album, Ellington At Newport, became his best-selling LP. It's also widely considered to be one of the greatest live recordings in jazz. But ever since its release in 1956, we have been led to believe that this album was an actual recording of the Newport concert.

In a remarkable, historic reissue, Columbia has come clean about Ellington's 1956 Newport concert and album. This two-CD set finally sets the record straight.

Due to a poor recording of the Newport concert, Columbia sent the band into the studio the day after the gig to retape parts of the show, mixing in fake applause and splicing together studio and live material. (On stage, Gonsalves accidentally played his famous solo into the wrong microphone, and Columbia's tapes were woefully inadequate.) Both Ellington and Columbia thought it important to release a recording from the concert, so the answer was this live/studio hybrid labeled Ellington At Newport. Blissful fans have considered it the real deal for decades.

This new release rights all these wrongs, and gloriously so. The entire concert is delivered as it originally occurred, thanks to recently discovered tapes of a Voice of America broadcast of the concert -- tapes which, it turns out, just happened to be directly recording Gonsalves' incendiary solo. Not only that, but Columbia's original tapes were also relocated, and the two mono tapes were laboriously patched together to produce, for the first time, a stereo mix of the concert.

It gets better. While the original LP included only three cuts, "Newport Jazz Festival Suite," "Jeep's Blues," and Gonsalves' rip-snortin', 14-minute "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue," this new reissue includes 10 additional concert tunes, including "Sophisticated Lady," "Black And Tan Fantasy," "Skin Deep," and "Mood Indigo." Following the entire concert are the complete studio takes from the following day. All told, there's over an hour of previously unreleased material.

This is one of those revelatory recordings, a magnificent, ebullient slice of history revealed in its unmitigated glory. Now that we're finally able to hear the original concert as it occurred, filled with all the excitement, energy, and brilliance of Ellington's band on that legendary evening, this record's reputation soars beyond the wildest hopes of the most devoted Ellington fan. When the inevitable canonization of Ellington occurs, this concert will certainly be submitted as one of his requisite miracles. For those of us still wandering around in this temporal realm, Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete) is absolutely essential for any decent jazz collection.

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