In the view of some of the day’s [more pedantic] jazz critic’s, Ellington and his orchestra were running on empty by the early 70s. By then, The Duke had become an American Icon deserving of respect, naturally, but whose best days were long behind him - or so they thought. But "they" discounted that Ellington composed some of his best works in the 60s (Far East Suite
, for one) and his band sounded sweet, luxurious and drumhead tight as they ever had, with more than a few flashes of brilliance. And the fact that - aside from Gil Evans - The Duke was one of the few holdovers from the Big Band era who was still creative, refusing to coast on past glories.
This 3-CD set (nearly 4 hours of music) captures The Duke and company in the "twilight years" 1965-1973, much of which has not been out on CD before as well as 23 previously unreleased tracks. You get Ellington solo, with his orchestra, with small groups, in tandem with (hold on now) Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops Orchestra. No doubt Jazz Purists - then as well as now - turn their collective snouts up at the very idea of Ellington, one of the greatest American composers ever, losing himself as a "guest soloist" in a sea of squares, playing schmaltzed-up versions of his greatest hits. Granted, some of the tunes with Fiedler (with arrangements by Richard Heyman) are
earnest and a little corny - but isn’t corn (at least in small amounts) a staple of the American diet? I mean, "Caravan" and "The Mooche" are given such grandiose, over-the-top treatments (we’re talkin’ Cecil B. DeMille/Charlton Heston territory here, folks) that they become.... fascinating (no other word for it), like something absurd and enjoyable, dated yet timeless simultaneously. Besides, Ellington was an Artist in the "guise" of an Entertainer - his motto went something like, "give them what they want, then they’ll be more receptive for your own
stuff" - he wrote and played for dancers and listeners, for concert halls and ballrooms, unashamed of entertaining the masses. Though there’s nothing exactly revelatory or "cutting edge" here (listen to the recently reissued and remastered 60s trio session Money Jungle
[Blue Note] for that, or the aforementioned Far East Suite
), there’s an awful lot of real fine music to be heard: classic Ellingtonia (as well as some choice 60s pop hits) superbly played (Russell Procope's "Creole Rhapsody" solo is almost worth the price of admission) - that swing was still the thing, even this late in the game - and there’s several spotlights shone on Ellington’s singular piano playing, in all its underrated, witty, uptown yet opulent, Monk- and Ravel-like, blues-hued, minimalist glory. Obviously not an item for the casual fan of the man, but for the Seriously Smitten, the droves of Ducal Devotees, this set merits serious consideration.