ELLINGTON, Duke: Braggin' In Brass

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\Braggin' In Brass" Original Recordings 1938

Duke Ellington accomplished so much during his 75 years thatit is impossible to accurately measure his innovations.  As a pianist, he developed a verylikable stride style in the 1920s based on James P. Johnson and Willie "theLion" Smith, evolving through the years to sound quite modern even as late asthe 1960s.  As a songwriter andcomposer, Ellington wrote thousands of pieces, scores of which becamestandards.  His inventivearrange-ments overlooked the conventional rules to carve out a path of his own,somehow blending together a group of very individual musicians into arecogni-zable and unified ensemble. And as a bandleader, he led an orchestra during 1926-74 that in any ofthose years ranked with the top five in jazz.

Born 29 April 1899 in Washington D.C., Edward KennedyEllington was nicknamed Duke early on due to his charm and classy nature.  Although he had originally thought ofbecoming an artist, after hearing his hometown's local ragtime and stridepianists, Ellington changed his mind. He started playing in public in 1917, wrote his first songs (startingwith "Soda Fountain Rag") and led bands in Washington D.C.  In 1922 he went to New York with someof his musical friends to play with clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman's group but,after that engagement ended, he soon returned home.  The following year he had better luck during his secondvisit to New York, becoming a member of a band led by banjoist Elmer Snowden,the Washington-ians.  After a moneydispute resulted in Snowden's ouster, Duke became the leader.  Ellington's Washingtonians were basedat the Kentucky Club during 1924-27 and during that time the band developed its"jungle sound," emphasizing tonal distortions via cornetist Bubber Miley andtrombonist Tricky Sam Nanton's mastery with mutes.  In December 1927 Ellington received the biggest break of hiscareer when his orchestra was hired as the house band at the Cotton Club.  The regular radio broadcasts made hisgroup so well known that they were soon accurately known as "Duke Ellington'sFamous Orchestra".  Years beforethe swing era began, Ellington was widely recognized as a genius whose big bandsounded unlike anyone else's.

Historians often rank certain Ellington bands as his best,particularly the ones from 1927-29 and 1940-42.  Braggin' In Brass focuses on his relatively underratedorchestra of 1938.  The 1940 bigband is generally given the edge due to the additions of tenor-saxophonist BenWebster, bassist Jimmy Blanton and arranger-composer Billy Strayhorn, but by1938, Ellington's orchestra was certainly in its own category.  Most big bands of the period featuredfour horn soloists, typically one trumpeter, a trombonist, a clarinetist and atenor-saxophonist.  Ellington, whowas always attracted to unique voices and loved the challenge of arranging foreach of his musician's strengths, in 1938 had seven key horn soloists.  While trumpeter Cootie Williams assumedthe former role of Bubber Miley, contributing his own variety of distortedwa-wa sounds (plus open solos influenced by Louis Armstrong), cornetist RexStewart's half-valve effects also made him distinctive.  Trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton's uniquesolos contrasted with the more straightforward and technically skilled swingstatements from Lawrence Brown. Barney Bigard kept the legacy of New Orleans clarinet alive inEllington's band while altoist Johnny Hodges and baritonist Harry Carney wereconsidered the very best on their instruments.  In addition, Wallace Jones proved to be a fine leadtrumpeter, Juan Tizol's fluent valve trombone playing made him an expertutility player and altoist Otto Hardwick's creamy alto sound pointed backtowards Ellington's beginnings. Duke was a fine if underrated pianist, Sonny Greer as much apercussionist as a drummer and Fred Guy offered nearly inaudible rhythm guitarthat helped hold the rhythm section together.  During this era, while Billy Taylor was Ellington's regularbassist, Duke sometimes experimented with the use of a second bass played byHayes Alvis.  In addition, during thefirst half of 1938, Harold "Shorty" Baker (an important lyrical voice inEllington's bands of 1942-62) was in the trumpet section.

In 1938, the year that Ellington turned 39, his orchestrarecorded 37 selections.  Twenty ofthe very best are on this release. The polite yet swinging Stepping Into Swing Society opens up the set,preceding the lightly swinging The Gal From Joe's, which has a fine solo fromHodges.  I Let A Song Go Out Of MyHeart was a big seller for Benny Goodman and singer Martha Tilton in 1938 butthe initial version (one of seventeen songs composed or co-written by Ellingtonon this set) was recorded a month earlier without a vocal.  Throughout the 1920s and '30s Dukeoften utilized the chord changes of "Tiger Rag" in his uptempo originals.  Braggin' In Brass shows off bothEllington's ingenuity in reworking older ideas in a new format and thebrilliance of his brass section (check out the very tricky ensemble chorus)including exciting solos from Stewart, Brown and Williams.  Dinah's In A Jam also explores an olderstandard, "Dinah," but without stating the theme and instead adding plenty ofheated riffs; Stewart, Brown and Bigard star.


Ivie Anderson, Ellington's vocalist during 1932-42 (andalways considered his finest singer) makes the first of three appearances onYou Gave Me The Gate, assisted by Williams.  Juan Tizol contributed several exotic Mid-Eastern flavouredpieces to Ellington's repertoire in the 1930s, most notably "Caravan."  Pyramid, which has Tizol playing theeerie theme, is particularly haunting. When My Sugar Walks Down The Street is by contrast a joyful rendition ofthe standard featuring Anderson, Hodges, Williams, Carney and Brown.  Tizol's lesser-known but worthy A GypsyWithout A Song is quite atmospheric while Watermelon Man (no relation to thelater Herbie Hancock hit) is a happy tune despite having lyrics that makelittle sense!  Please Forgive Me isan example of the Ellington Orchestra playing a danceable ballad (with LawrenceBrown emulating Tommy Dorsey a little) as is the remake of Prelude To A Kiss,sandwiching the spirited Lambeth Walk. Buffet Flat is one of Carney's finest showcases of the era, showing whyhe was the premiere baritonist before the bebop era.  Hodges, Williams, Brown, Carney and Bigard all have theirspots on the complex but melodic T.T. On Toast which was not released for thefirst time until 1947.


Blue Light, a dreamy blues with Bigard, Brown and Duke askey voices, would be revived a decade later as "Transbluency," a wordlessvehicle for singer Kay Davis.  OldKing Dooji is a song also well worth bringing back; this version has plenty ofenthusiastic ensembles.  RexStewart's most famous feature, Boy Meets Horn, is full of his wit and hisunique half-valve technique, becoming a minor hit and his permanent trademarksong.  One of jazz critic LeonardFeather's best songs, Mighty Like The Blues, received its definitive recordingby Ellington in 1938.  Slap Happy,which has solos from Carney and Nanton, ends this swinging set.

    As 1938 came to a close, DukeEllington still had 35 more years of accomplishments ahead of him.  But even if he had chosen to retire atthat moment, his work in 1938 alone would have made him immortal.

Scott Yanow  -author of eight jazz books including Jazz On Record 1917-76, Bebop, Swing andTrumpet Kings

Disc: 1
Slap Happy
1 Stepping into Swing Society
2 The Gal from Joe's
3 I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart
4 Braggin' in Brass
5 Dinah's in a Jam
6 You Gave Me the Gate (And I'm Swingin')
7 Pyramid
8 When My Sugar Walks Down the Street
9 A Gypsy Without a Song
10 Watermelon Man
11 Please Forgive Me
12 Lambeth Walk
13 Prelude to a Kiss
14 Buffet Flat
15 T. T. on Toast
16 Blue Light (Transblucency)
17 Old King Dooji
18 Boy Meets Horn
19 Mighty Like the Blues
20 Slap Happy
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