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Derrick Davey
Fine Music, July 2007

This CD introduces some outstanding new compositions which later became standard fare—‘Passion flower’, ‘I’m beginning to see the light’, ‘Just squeeze me’—but there are others which appear to have been dashed off in a hurry. As you would expect, most of the compositions on this CD are by Ellington or his colleague Billy Strayhorn, but one surprise is ‘Hollywood hangover’ which was composed and arranged for the orchestra by trumpeter Buck Clayton. This is a catchy little tune with a string of soloists—Joe Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Jimmy Hamilton and Cat Anderson—riding over the riffing ensemble.

Soloists to shine on the eighteen tracks include Johnny Hodges with his usual creamy sound, Laurence Brown with dry tone and laconic approach, Jimmy Hamilton, a technically accomplished, fleet-fingered clarinet player (he has a long solo accompanied only by a walking bass on Air Conditioned Jungle), and Al Sears with his flamboyant and overt rock and roll bluster on tenor horn. Nothing much is heard from the trumpeters (there are five of them) except for an occasional brief solo. One soloist whom you do not expect to hear with Ellington is the ‘Sentimental Gentleman of Swing’, Tommy Dorsey. This occurred during an historic double event when the Dorsey and Ellington orchestra assembled in a New York studio and recorded one tune each. The ducal men recorded the gentle Ellington composition ‘Tonight I shall sleep with a smile on my face’, featuring Dorsey’s trombone followed by the Dorsey crew and a Sy Oliver composition ‘The Minor goes as Muggin’ with Ellington at the piano. Both recordings are heard on this CD. …Duke Ellington was 45 years old when these recordings were made. He had led a band for about 20 years and would continue to do so for a further 30 years. Air Conditioned Jungle is a portrait of the band near its peak.

Fine Music, September 2006

In 1944-45 recordings by Duke Ellington's orchestra began to take a slightly different direction with vocalists being featured more and more. At one stage the Duke had five - Al Hibbler, Joya Sherrill, Kay Davis, Marie Ellington and Ray Nance. Some jazz fans believed the band reached a low point when the three female vocalists were featured on It Don't Mean A Thing, a recording noted only for the fine solos by Nance on violin and trumpeter Taft Jordan. Also the quality of the soloists had declined. Al Sears, a competent and superficially exciting tenor saxophonist, was no Ben Webster and many criticised clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton claiming his slickness was no substitute for the sensuousness of Barney Bigard. Although a third of the 18 tracks on Air Conditioned Jungle are vocals there are compensations - trombonist Lawrence Brown shines on the swinging Midriff and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges is at his peerless best on Mood To Be Wooed. Duke plays excellently with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra on Sy Oliver's The Minor Goes A Muggin and Dorsey returns the compliment with the Ellington band, his immaculate trombone adding nice touches to Tonight I Shall Sleep (With A Smile On My Face) which also has a fine solo on Hodges. However, it's the Black, Brown and Beige set which contains the meaty fireworks especially the first 11 transcriptions recorded in 1943 for radio use only by the World Program Service during the two-year recording ban (1942-44) imposed by the musicians' union. The soloists, notably Hodges, Brown, Nance (trumpet and violin), cornetist Rex Stewart and trombonist 'Tricky Sam' Nanton are in top form. Stewart, with his unusual half-valve technique (a squeezed tonal sound obtained by depressing the valve half­way) is in his element on the extended Boy Meets Horn, first recorded in 1938. Ellington staples such as Mood Indigo (here the definitive five minute version) and Caravan (great swinging violin) and Creole Love Call (Nanton magnificent in a plunger mood) are all the better for being longer than usual. Mary Lou Williams arrangement of Blue Skies gets an early workout; three years later it would be renamed Trumpets All Out with the emphasis on that section. A 26-year-old Dizzy Gillespie was in the trumpet section on the first six tracks but was not given solo space. A pity but anyone who digs the Duke will love this set.

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