IMPEX Reissues Ellington Columbia Classic AAA
Williams, who named Frank Sinatra "Chairman of the Board", specialized not in be-bop, but in big band "dance music." He championed "great American Songbook" vocalists like Ella and Frank, even at a time when rock'n'roll, which he detested, was ascendant. Though Williams didn't originate "Make Believe Ballroom" (he took over for Martin Block) he remained on the air playing this elegant though not exactly hip music until the mid 1980s.
Recorded in 1957 and released in 1958 in both mono (CL1085) and stereo (CS 8053) the album was produced at a time when Ellington fronted both a jazz orchestra that played concerts and a dance band out on the road doing one nighters at "every major college and university in America". Clearly it was a very different world back then!
The idea here was to produce an album dedicated to those who enjoyed dancing and listening to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, so while most of Ellington's Columbia albums like Piano in the Background were thematic collections of songs for the LP era, this one attempts both musically and sonically to recreate the slow ballroom dancing ambience of a non-recital date where elegance of line takes precedent over jazzy syncopation and extended solos. It's positively dreamy.
Elegant and almost formal this music is and recorded with an ear towards distance and space. Close your eyes and you will imagine yourself in a "make believe ballroom"—an empty one—materializing out of the mist to bring you the sound and sensation of an era long past. If you're of a certain age you're more likely to imagine your parents and grandparents all decked out on the dance floor than you are college kids at the dawn of the space age.
Ellington fronted a formidable group at this time with Ray Nance, "Cat" Anderson, "Shorty" Baker, Clark Terry and Willie Cook on trumpets and Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves on saxophones propelled by the rhythm section of The Duke, Sam Woodyard on drums and Jimmy Wood on bass.
Believe me, if you're wondering what this is all about after the opener "Solitude" (that starts with a gorgeous Duke solo) and the familiar "Where or When", you'll cave completely on the familiar title tune when the saxes light up to caress the melody. The first side closer, "Autumn Leaves," features Ray Nance playing an ornately turned violin solo after which vocalist Ozzy Bailey delivers the lyrics in a croony vocal style that might sound like parody to modern ears. Best to just go with the flow and fully enter the time machine.
If you're willing to make that move you'll find that this moody, atmospheric album almost turns psychedelic. I'm not kidding. Side two opens with "Prelude to a Kiss," another Duke classic that's seductive in a film noir-ish way, with Johnny Hodges' sax solo greasing the skids. You won't need visuals to get the picture.
Though the album was originally meant for slow dancing, it works equally well, if not better, for slow listening. It's absolutely transportive if you're of a certain age. If you're under forty you may have a harder time getting on the bus, but if you can manage, I think you'll have a hell of a great ride!
The recording is superb in every way: texturally, harmonically and especially spatially. I guess it's difficult for some to imagine 1957 producing an utterly transparent, three-dimensional recording but trust me, everything you might be looking for sonically is here. Finding a quiet original is not easy, especially because of the purposely quiet and somewhat distant production. It's designed to make you step into it, not bring it to you. Kevin Gray's cut from a 1:1 copy at 30IPS from the original master is to my ears better than any of the originals I have here, particularly in terms of high frequency extension and transparency. Of course the RTI pressing is dead silent. What a treat! If you come upon an original mono, it's worth having as well, especially since it includes "The Sky Fell Down," which is not on the stereo release. Obviously the stereo's sense of space (and time!) can't be beat. I keep thinking of hearing and loving Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" on Steely Dan's great Pretzel Logic album back in 1974 when I was a "kid" but it was an "old fashioned" interlude on a modern album and I never thought to pursue Ellington further. It was my parents' music and I wanted no part of it. Donald Fagen knew better than to just live in the present and look forward to the future and eventually I figured it out too and went back. I highly recommend the trip and can't think of a better way to go than this elegant album. Even if you're happy to be here now, you'll wish you could go back to then if just for a short visit. With this album you can.