Duke Ellington’s Best Album—One of the Best in Jazz—Is Also One of His Least-Known

And on a new reissue, it sounds better than ever.

Author unknown via Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington poses with his piano at the KFG Radio Studio on Nov. 3, 1954.

Author unknown via Wikimedia Commons

The best album ever made by Duke Ellington—which is to say, one of the best albums in jazz—is also one of his least-known. It attracted scant attention upon its release, in 1951, and no particular acclaim when reissued on CD in 2004, after decades in out-of-print limbo. Now a leading audiophile record label, Analogue Productions of Salina, Kansas, has brought it out on pristine vinyl (it’s also, despite its vintage, one of the best-sounding jazz albums ever), and the time has come to take notice.

It’s called Masterpieces by Ellington, and the stuffy title might have been part of the problem. The whole product likely struck jazz fans of the time as baffling, if they noticed it at all. First, it was released on Columbia Records’ Masterworks imprint, which was associated with classical music. Second, the cover copy boasted “uncut concert arrangements” of four Ellington songs, including three of his biggest hits from the 1930s (“Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude”), but the only versions most home listeners knew were the three-minute tracks on 78 rpm discs, so what were these “concert arrangements”?

But the main reason for the album’s dim sales, I suspect, was technological. This was Ellington’s first 12-inch long-playing record, and one of the very early LPs (as they were called) by any musician. Few consumers, and fewer jazz fans, owned one of the newfangled phonographs that could play these records.

Yet this is also one reason for the album’s stunning artistic achievement. Ellington used the new medium in daring fashion. Rather than pack the extra space with more songs (an LP spinning at 3313 revolutions per minute held about 20 minutes of music per side, compared with the three or four minutes on a 78 rpm disc), he recorded much longer arrangements—a 15-minute “Mood Indigo,” an 11-minute “Sophisticated Lady,” an eight-minute “Solitude,” and a new song, “The Tattooed Bride,” that clocked in at 11-plus minutes.

Ellington and his collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, were brilliant big-band composers. They’d never had the opportunity to go long on record, so they exploited it to the max, throwing everything they knew into the arrangements for this album.

Since the 1930s, and especially the ’40s, Ellington was renowned for his adventurous harmonies and crisscross rhythms. A dapper, charismatic man, he was flattered and bemused when classical music critics, who’d approached his music as a slumming lark, came away in raptures, likening him to Copland or Stravinsky. But the music on Masterpieces goes way beyond anything he’d set down till then.

“Mood Indigo” starts things off, and from the opening bars, it’s orbiting a different sun. The band members reel off the famous melody, but it’s slow, languorous, as if they had all the time in the world (and they do). The bassist Wendell Marshall plucks his notes just behind the beat, more an insouciant stroll than a bass walk. The reeds enter in four-part harmony, in a nod to the original. Trumpets blare forth. Soloists take their cue, Jimmy Hamilton fierce-blowing his clarinet, Johnny Hodges swooning on alto sax, while Duke darts dissonant murmurings on piano.

Then, all of a sudden, the band shifts into something out of Ravel, the woodwinds fluttering slow triplets against the melody from muted brass. Duke takes a solo; three minutes have passed; in the old days, this would signal the end, but here, the show is just beginning. The whole band comes back, Hodges resuming his romance up front, the other horn sections ladling chromatic harmonies.

And then, seven minutes in, a woman (identified on the record only as “Yvonne”) starts singing (“You ain’t been blue/ No, no, no / Till you’ve heard that mood indigo”). After 2½ minutes, she vanishes and Tyree Glenn steps to the mic, flapping a plunger mute on his trombone to startling effect: not a mellow “wah wah wah” but a raspy “yaw yaw yaw,” like a vaudeville singer. (There’s a lot of humor in this arrangement, something else that might have bothered jazz traditionalists.)

Then, after some transition bars from Duke, the whole band charges in again with a new variation, a carrousel rhythm in waltz time with off-centered harmony, that foreshadows Sondheim by a quarter-century.

Finally, Duke and Hodges resume their flirtatious dialogue (this is erotic music), as the horns blow quietly in lush unison. And as the song finally does wind down, you feel as if you’ve been on a whirlwind tour through all of music, led by an unruffled guide teeming with wit and bonhomie, yet the whole trip swings like crazy. (If it didn’t, it wouldn’t mean a thing.)

If there were nothing on this album but “Mood Indigo,” if there was nothing in the Ellington canon but this arrangement of “Mood Indigo,” it—and he—would deserve a special spot in the annals of 20th-century music.

But then the album’s new song, “The Tattooed Bride,” which Ellington and Strayhorn wrote shortly before the session (and which afterward entered their vast repertoire of classics), delves deep into greatness.

It starts with dark dissonance, segues into a sprightly upbeat torrent, crashes into low rumbling, then rises back up to Swing Era dance music with an Afro-modern beat (foreshadowing Ellington’s great album of 1959, Jazz Party in Stereo). Several bars into this, he shifts into romantic balladry, laced with dark accents on piano. Horns blare in the back; woodwinds blow counter-melodies, like a rondo with shifting centers. The piece closes out with a reprise of pure swing, reminiscent of his 1940s band, punctuated by clamorous spurts—a melding of old and new, familiarity with strangeness, not unlike the song’s title.

Ellington composed with the members of his band in mind, gearing the arrangements to their individual styles and strengths. When the personnel changed, so did the music, in ways subtle or significant. After Masterpieces, five members departed (though a few would return), and Ellington shifted to accommodate. There would never be another album like it—though he continued to write with the LP in mind: not so much long arrangements, but suites or collections with coherent themes. (Ellington produced album-oriented jazz long before there was album-oriented rock.) Many rank his sessions in the 1940s as his peak years, but I prefer the Columbia LPs of the ’50s: Such Sweet Thunder (inspired by Romeo & Juliet), Jazz Party in Stereo, the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder, the explosive Ellington at Newport (ostensibly live, but much of it re-recorded in the studio).

But to me, Masterpieces by Ellington surpasses them all. I’m not alone in my love for this album. Two of the most astute jazz critics, Gary Giddins and the late Martin Williams, hailed it as one of his best (though Williams did so in a single, almost parenthetical sentence from a long analysis of Ellington’s music in The Jazz Tradition). Otherwise, oddly, almost nothing’s been written about it.

Even Michael Cuscuna, the most encyclopedic jazz producer, had never heard of it until 10 years ago, when he came across the tapes during a random search through Columbia’s vaults. He told me he read the play sheet (“Mood Indigo, 15:26… Sophisticated Lady, 11:28…”) and wondered, “What is this, a blowing session?” He played the tapes, out of curiosity more than anything, and was bowled over. He urged Columbia’s execs to reissue it, and then produced the resulting CD.

The sound quality of that CD was excellent, not just for a session recorded in December 1950, but by almost any standards. I played it once for a high-end audio manufacturer, and he was stunned. Were it not in mono (stereo didn’t come on the market until the late ’50s), he would have assumed it was a modern-day audiophile recording.

And so we come to the new, remastered Analogue Productions LP, which is to the CD as a high-def television is to a circa-1980 Trinitron.* Played on a good sound system, it’s a sonic time machine, hurling you into Columbia’s 30th Street Studio with the Ellington orchestra. Horns sound brassy, drums smack, cymbals sizzle, you hear the air pass through the woodwinds. When saxophones play in harmony, the overtones bloom like a sonic bouquet; when the musicians take a quarter-note pause, you hear them breathe in.

How could this be true of a 64-year-old recording? Well, old is not always bad. Magnetic tape, invented by the Germans, was brought back to the United States after World War II, just a few years before this session. (Before then, records were cut straight to wax or disc.) And the early brands of tape were capable of absorbing wide dynamic range and the full spectrum of frequencies. The session’s engineer, Fred Plaut, was hugely talented; he later recorded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and many other Columbia jazz classics.* (He’s not as famous as, say, Blue Note’s Rudy Van Gelder, because Columbia didn’t list technical credits on the back of its albums.)

Analogue Productions has reissued hundreds of fine-sounding jazz and pop albums over the past few decades. Its proprietor, Chad Kassem, insists on mastering from the original tapes, on the finest 180-gram virgin vinyl. In the past few years, he’s assembled what many engineers regard as the world’s best LP pressing plant. (Amid the vinyl resurgence, the plant is in constant demand from many labels, not just his, even though he charges more than many others.)

I’ve listened to Kassem’s reissues for as long as he’s been making them. There are other audiophiles doing similar work, most notably Music Matters Jazz, a Los Angeles–based company that deals exclusively with Blue Note albums. Masterpieces by Ellington ranks among the most thrilling reissues of all, and it’s essential music besides. You can buy the CD for $7, and you won’t go wrong. But if you want to hear and feel the music in all its dynamic glory, spend $30 for Chad Kassem’s LP.

*The heavily compressed YouTube embeds in this piece are, of course, more like a Sony Watchman. (Return.) 

Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: This article originally misstated that Harold Chapman was an engineer with Fred Plaut on Masterpieces by Ellington. Fred Plaut was the only engineer. (Return.)