Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
JAZZ HAD never meant that much to me. The odd LP of Django Reinhardt or Sidney Bechet, perhaps, but that was more or less it. Then I heard "Work Song" from Duke Ellington's 1943 suite Black, Brown and Beige, and my musical life changed for ever. This was the "other" great American music - darker, more "gutsy" and more mysterious than Copland; easier than Carter, tougher than Bernstein. It was a force on its own: urban, original, and vaguely threatening.

Ellington's key shifts are the work of genius, and his mastery of harmony and instrumental timbre - much abetted by his great collaborator, Billy Strayhorn - virtually levels with Stravinsky's. I do not exaggerate. This is great music. And so, when RCA announced their 24-CD Duke Ellington: the Centennial Edition, I started to save in earnest.

The first 17 discs cover the period from 1927 to 1946, and showcase some of Ellington's strongest numbers. Take a track such as the "East St Louis Toodle-O", recorded - as the exhaustive accompanying book tells us - between 9.00 and 12.00pm on Tuesday, 9 February 1932. The opening idea creeps in like some sinister reptile charting the jungle floor, then the lights suddenly switch on and you're back in Harlem. That's just one surprise. Another is the screaming dissonance of "Coloratura", offered here - like so many other items - in two distinct takes. And don't forget that in jazz, two consecutive recordings often involve spontaneous musical variation. The tone poetry of the Harlem Suite dates from 1950, and turns up as part of a fabulous 1952 Seattle concert.

And there are the standards: "Caravan", "In a Sentimental Mood", "Perdido", "Take the `A' Train", "Sophisticated Lady", etc, most of them represented both in "early" (mono) and "late" (stereo) recordings. These are Ellington's hits, soundtracks for nostalgia presented in transfers that are dramatically superior to anything previously issued. The "last" recordings include live concerts from Eastbourne (Sussex) and Tanglewood, the "Popular" Ellington, and a tribute to Strayhorn.

And yet, for me, the biggest - and most unexpected - revelations were the three sacred concerts from 1965-1973. "The jazz mass is people talking to God," writes Ellington. "The sacred concert we perform is people talking to people about God. There is a big difference." I had no idea what to expect - maybe a variety of Gospel, or something along those lines. What we have, in fact, is quintessential Ellington - including "Come Sunday", one of the loveliest movements from Black, Brown and Beige.

Most classical composers wore a musical Sunday best, and could slip into holy mode when the prompt was right. Ellington, like JS Bach, was different. Bach brought concerto and sonata movements into his church Cantatas, and Ellington bridged the secular-spiritual divide similarly.

Every track in this magnificent set gives you the whole man, but if pounds 200 (or thereabouts) is just too much to risk, then search out Black, Brown and Beige (preferably in the 1944 recording presented here) or the Far East Suite. The Edition is presented in an LP-size box, with a 125-page book, copious photos and a fascinating sequence of essays. My advice is to listen first, and then read later.

Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: the Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) RCA 09026-63386-2 (24 discs) Limited Edition