This Ellington concert of October 29, 1958 at the Alhambra Theater has a joyous quality. After hitting the doldrums of the early 1950s, Ellington’s band was revived in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. That historic concert was topped off by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ extended chorus solo (allegedly transfixed by an alluring fan) on ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.’ While this Parisian concert may not be deemed as ‘historic’ in the sense of turning around the fortunes of a bulging big band in the era of bebop combos, the music of this orchestra actually sounds better than Newport.
There is such exuberance and elation embodied on these pieces that, in a way, this live album emerging from the archives might be thought of something like Duke’s Picks #26. Though at times the music has a ‘rough but right’ feel, the sound quality of this recording is crystal clear.
The pieces that are selected are familiar and range from over a span of three decades. The pieces sound as fresh as when they first conceived by Ellington and Strayhorn. Ellington’s band is clearly hitting their stride after launching a slightly ragged ‘Take the "A" Train.’ But, it is clear sailing after this initial run-through. ‘Tenderly’ is simply beautiful and sways in its sophisticated and elegant way. The medley of ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, ‘Creole Love Call’ and ‘The Mooche’ is a lusty romp thick with bluesy humidity and smoke. Echoing the plaintive laments of a lover, ‘Frustration’ is a slow ambivalent simmer of the sometime pains and contradictions of a relationship. As he begins his solo, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney cleverly quotes from ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ from the Scarecrow in the "The Wizard of Oz." ‘All of Me’ could have been played in their dreams, but it’s performed seamlessly and passionately and then the band takes off for ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ in which it is hard not to just get up find a partner and dance across the living room floor. The encore, of course, is an obliging ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.’ While Gonsalves may not have pumped up as in Newport, his solo is nonetheless breathtaking. Listen closely to the modernist pianist. Ellington’s solo sounds like hard bopper, Horace Silver.
Ellington repeats "We love you madly" over and over to his audience. This is sincere. He means it. This is a man and orchestra that love to make music to an appreciative audience. "Duke Ellington at the Alhambra" is an astonishing recording.