During the 30’s Duke Ellington was on fire. But the 40’s were not good to the big. Jazz was going in the direction of bebop, which was more about the artistry of jazz rather than the entertainment. Suddenly the funny noises that talented brass musicians made with their instruments was no longer cool. Even the Duke had trouble in the 40’s with a loss of popularity and band members. So by 1950, Duke Ellington decided to revisit some of his old standards. This record marked the beginning of Duke Ellington’s return to the forefront of the jazz culture, despite the loss of several key band members, such as Johnny Hodges and Sonny Greer, shortly after the recording.
Yet upon first listen, it’s obvious that this is not the Duke Ellington of earlier times. This is the LP that the Duke recorded, so he no longer had to play three-minute tracks. Because of this we get the long, elegant songs that were part of the band’s live show. What set Ellington apart from other bandleaders was that he turned a big band into a small band. On the first track, Mood Indigo, there is no thunderous brass section, no competition between the saxophone and the trumpet, the band is moving as a unit, starting off with Ellington’s twinkling piano. Then the horns come in, soft and relaxed. A saxophone solos, intertwining with the piano. And it all fits. Duke Ellington always hated being classified as jazz, he felt it limited him. On his new versions, he is just playing music, beautiful music. Halfway through the track, vocalist Yvonne Lanauze begins singing, blending her smooth voice with the band well. The song shifts after a funny sounding trumpet or horn (I cannot tell which) solo. It gets slightly louder and there’s more saxophone. The next song is Sophisticated Lady, which starts with a frantic, but still somehow mellow piano intro, then more smooth deep saxophone. The theme of the song is introduced, which is later sung by Lanauze. This has a less unified sound, but it is still a solid track.
The next song is the only new number on the album, and is my personal favorite, The Tattooed Bride. Unlike the previous two, this song starts with horns, not Ellington’s piano. But he comes in soon enough with an upbeat melody, accompanied by a nice walking bass line. There’s something about those jazz bass lines that I love, they make jazz, especially around the bebop era (when the bass could actually be heard), so much more interesting for me. This song is much like older big band songs, with a brazen brass section that explodes out there. The whole band is utilized in this song. The song is quick and smart, as I expected from Duke Ellington. Thanks to the energetic trumpet and trombones, this is dancing song. Plus, it’s eleven minutes long. After the first two smoother numbers, The Tattooed Bride is a welcome change of pace. There is a nice soft section in the second half of the song, before returning to quick paced, hot jazz. The highlight of Tattooed Bride is the excellent trumpet, which keeps the song swinging and ends the song with a long, long, long note while the rest of the band backs it up. Solitude is the final track on the album. After the sultry saxophone intro, the Duke’s piano comes out, alone, warm and lush. This is the best piano on the album, reminding everybody that Ellington could play as well as lead a band. The saxophone returns, but that classy piano is still the highlight for me on this song. It’s a nice, feel good way to end this excellent album.
Masterpieces by Ellington is just that, a masterpiece. The transition into LPs really allowed Ellington to expand his talents and the talents of the members of his band. Often, greatest hits albums come out when a group has run out of gas (i.e. the Scorpions). But Duke Ellington’s renewal of his old songs recharged his career, and led him on to greater things, such as his historical performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. This is a masterful album by a master of music, or jazz, if you must.