Was Duke Ellington one of THE GREATEST chefs in the crazily eclectic kitchen of American Music? Yet another long-unavailable chapter in Dukal lore has been restored to us, dear Friends: Afro-Bossa, an album from 1961 originally available on the Reprise label and has been in & out of print on a couple of labels since. Here it makes its debut in the glorious, surface-noise-free compact disc incarnation, and it’s likely one of the best, most underratedly wonderful slices of All the Duke’s Men on the market, up there with Far East Suite and His Mother Called Him Bill as Ellington’s best platters [really! no foolin'!] of the 1960s. When most other big band leaders were peddling nostalgia or re-do's of current pop hits, the Duke wrote some of his very best, most creative stuff, on a par with (and sometimes anticipating) the modern cats of the time using the big band as their template: George Russell, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, and Sun Ra.
Inspired by the music of various countries & cultures while touring the world, Ellington worked in various influences as only he can - he wrote for the strengths of the members of his band, like the iron-hand-in-a-velvet glove of bari-sax-man Harry Carney, the suave, elegant, Euro-hued violin of Ray Nance, the lithe, soft-caramel-centered alto of Johnny Hodges, etc. Combine that with the sly, subtle and not-too-subtle manner of including indigenous sounds in his compositions, and you have a prescient set of world jazz without any heavy-handed "somberness" or obvious "let’s see, this piece has sitar, so it’s the ‘Indian’ exploration, and this has the African drums, so.... " Simply put, it all sounds like classy & classic jazz - "Angu" has the Duke’s piano vividly evoking the Japanese koto while a trumpet soars along, taking you from the Japanese countryside to downtown Tokyo and back to NYC. "Volupté" mixes Brazilian bossa nova and African rhythms in a deceptively simple fashion, then the horns put you on the veranda, as you coolly sip drinks with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, the big, beautiful, scary city lights in sight. Throughout the clarinet and muted trumpet cry many shades of the blues, rhythms from African and South America intermingle, and Ellington says more in two or three carefully chosen notes than many pianists can say in a whole album. It’s pretty, it’s beautiful, it's witty, it swings, and the tunes are tantalizingly short - you want to hear them over again, and soon - yielding more delights each time. Afro-Bossa is one of THE important jazz reissues of 2005, & you can take that to the bank.