Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Duke Ellington and Ray Brown [extended]

  • Money Jungle [Blue Note, 1962] A-
  • This One's for Blanton [Pablo, 1972] A-
  • The Best of Early Ellington [MCA, 1996] A
  • The Great Summit: The Master Takes [Roulette Jazz, 2000] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Duke Ellington: Money Jungle [Blue Note, 1962]
As a fan of Ellington's 1972 This One's for Blanton session with bassist Ray Brown, I resisted this earlier date with bassist Charlie Mingus and drummer Max Roach. I feared that while paired solely with supportive pre-modernist Brown Ellington was free to wax literal about such solid tunes as "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" and "Sophisticated Lady," showboating aesthete Mingus would depth-bomb the proceedings with his genius. But instead, Mingus hews the course, his lines venturing about harmonically with no appreciable loss of bottom--Roach's drums do at least as much bombing. So both sidemen-as-equals complicate rather than undermine the tracks' melodic allure as Ellington honors the songs, at his most disruptive like Monk in a mellow mood. But I must add that the four perfectly OK bonus alternate takes on the CD release, the 1962 session's third iteration, disperse the impact of an album that initially omitted the three fine new Ellington blues that surfaced second time around. My iTunes gets an 11-track version. A-

This One's for Blanton [Pablo, 1972]
That the man played with such lithe ambition in his seventies is a challenge not only to the senescent theory of youth culture but to all lingering truisms about youthfulness. That is, this is alive, and what else matters? I wish the movements of the suite that occupies side two were as attractive in themselves as each of the songs on side one is. But any pianist who can suggest the severe understatement of a Basie or Monk and the rather juicy extravagance of a Tatum or Garner in successive phrase has obviously earned the right to make big big statement--as if that's not obvious already. A-

Duke Ellington: The Best of Early Ellington [MCA, 1996]
Although it doesn't approach RCA's long-lost Flaming Youth and touches fewer famous classics than Columbia's fainter, cleaner two-CD Okeh Ellington, this warm, scratchy disc leads out of his tangled discography into his '20s music, which traffics in a rinky-dink novelty more rock and roll than his glossy big-band dance charts. At first only a few familiar tunes stand out from the delicate audacity and raucous detail of the sound. But soon every theme kicks in, every silky clarinet solo and bumptious plunger mute. Ellington called this jungle music because white folks would never have believed he heard the modern city so much better than they did. They learned, kind of. A

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Summit: The Master Takes [Roulette Jazz, 2000]
The Penguin Guide reports Ellington was "more or less slumming" during this two-day 1961 session while allowing as how it's Armstrong's gig anyway and in the end a "moving and quietly eloquent" reflection on Ellington's songbook--a songbook I should mention is augmented by a simple, irresistible opener called "Duke's Place" that producer Bob Thiele claimed a piece of. Seventeen tracks, 11 vocal with an 18-minute instrumental segment in the middle, all rendered by not just Armstrong but his band, although clarinetist Barney Bigard put in 15 years with Ellington first. From "Duke's Place" to "Azalea," the woke simplicity and droll soulfulness of this music is something Ellington was too soulful not to take pride in and too smart to believe anyone but Armstrong could have imparted. Beyond "Duke's Place" itself, my faves include a hooky "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" and the brief solo that precedes the "What good is melody" preamble to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Listen and come up with your own. A