Ellington Masterpieces  A Record That Belongs In Every Record Collection

The Internet has diminished the number of "record fairs" but there still are some. When I go to "record fairs" l like to "play against type". If I see a vendor who looks like Elvis Presley (and there is/was one), I know his 50s rock records are going to be good but expensive so I'd rather rummage through the boxes of $1 records he's put on the floor under his table. That's where he puts the "junk" about which he knows nothing.

That's where I once found a copy of The Kinks' "Greatest Hits" double LP on UK blue label Pye Records for $2.00. I didn't buy it when it was new because? Because it was only in MONO. Stupid me. Those tunes were recorded in mono and would sound best in mono even if there were stereo mixes. Now I'd snagged a copy for $2.00. That's what record collecting fun is all about in my opinion—not paying top dollar from a dealer, though sometimes you have to.

So at another visit to this same dealer's table (or under the table to be exact), I found a copy of this Duke Ellington album about which I knew nothing. For $1 I didn't bother to read the notes. I just checked the condition and it was very good but I did notice one odd thing: it was on the green Masterworks label. Even if it was a collection of 78rpm transcriptions I didn't care. The cover art by a "Stan Fraydas" alone made it worth a buck.

I cleaned it when I got home and played it. Within the first minute even before I had a chance to read the liner notes, I remember saying "Holy Shit! What is this?????"

This record from 1951 is one of the finest sounding jazz records you will ever hear. More about that shortly, but more importantly, this record is among the most significant LPs ever released because it was among the first to allow a genius like Duke Ellington to fully express himself on record.

Until the advent of the LP recording artists were limited to three minutes. Ellington in concert played long, extended suites not three minute dance tunes. This record was his first opportunity to let listeners hear at home what his orchestra played in concert.

Magnetic recording tape had come to America from Germany after WWII brought here by Jack Mullin and popularized by Bing Crosby who put $50,000 into a small company called Ampex (the story is best told elsewhere.

Two years after the introduction of the long playing record, in December of 1950 Columbia Records brought Duke Ellington and his orchestra into its 30th Street Studios to record to magnetic recording tape using an AMPEX 200 threaded with 3M 111 recording tape. At the board were the legendary recording engineer Fred Plaut and Harold Chapman.

Ellington and his band performed 11 minute plus versions of three signature compositions: "Mood Indigo", "Sophisticated Lady" (with vocal by Yvonne Lanauze) and "Solitude". It marked the debut of what would become another Ellington classic "The Tattooed Bride".

Allowed to stretch out, Ellington's arrangements put you in the lap of musical luxury aided by a recording that is so rich, deep and harmonically well-saturated you may well have trouble handling all of the riches in a single sitting. That is how overwhelmingly spectacular are both the music and the sound. The clarinet on "Mood Indigo" just about lands in your lap. If you don't think mono produces depth, listen to this.

For this reissue Chad Kassem insisted upon the original 15IPS master tapes, which were in remarkably great condition. Ryan K. Smith cut lacquers at Sterling Sound and of course plating and pressing was done at QRP.

Kassem used the original artwork (the album was later reissued using more "modern" graphics) by Stan Fraydas (better known in some circles as author of "Hoppy, the Curious Kangaroo") adding gorgeous black and white session photos (or photos from some Ellington 30th Street Studios session) on the inner gatefold jacket, which is "tip on" paper on cardboard from Stoughton Press.

Mine was a test pressing but I think the only thing Kassem missed was using the original green Columbia Masterworks label. Not a big deal.

Most highly recommended (the record is now on the QRP presses). It's one of my "Records to Die For" in the February 2015 Stereophile. You won't have to die to get a copy. $30 will do and it's well worth the money. A true classic both musically and sonically and a historical work of art you can now own.

(Review written and posted at 30,000 feet on a WiFi enabled United 737).

Music Direct Buy It Now

Superfuzz's picture

Thanks for the review, can't wait!

HoDu's picture

While I'm mostly a rock n' roll guy and don't know much from jazz, I obviously have great faith in your opinions and reviews. (I wouldn't be on the site if I didn't.) Thanks for this review. I'll be ordering this, along with some rock, in short order.
-- Sent from my easy chair, at about 37 feet above sea level.

John C Freeman's picture

Hello Mike,

Several months ago I wrote to you at this column about a great album called "Common Ground" by Dave and Phil Alvin. Well it just got nominated for the best blues album of 2014. You might want to review it, before they win this award at the Grammy's TV show whenever it is broadcast. Or I could write the review for you. And no I am not employed or related to Dave and Phil Alvin, just a fan.
Just Sayin.


Michael Fremer's picture
Not just sayin'.
John C Freeman's picture

Great, I think you will enjoy it.

MrRom92's picture

Thanks for doing this review. Highly interested in this title. You mentioned the green Masterworks label wasn't used. On the retail copies - what was used, a 6 eye? And this is a single LP in a gatefold jacket that has been expanded with photos?

How would you say the sound compares to the original pressing? My experience with the Columbia vinyl of that vintage isn't the greatest but most are transcriptions anyway. I'm assuming of course the pressing quality is much improved here so I would be interested in knowing how the sonics of the recorded program itself compare being that this was one of the few titles they would have cut from tape back then.

Michael Fremer's picture
Of course the vinyl is far superior as is the pressing quality but also the mastering is superior. The lathes today and the associated electronics are far superior to what was available in 1951. Of course you could say 'well if the recording then was so great and better than what's done today (and when you hear it you'll agree!) you could say 'well then maybe the lathe set up was better then too', but NO!)...this record's transparency will knock you out...
MrRom92's picture

Very good point. Even just being able to cut with variable pitch should make a marked improvement, let alone all the advanced electronics in the mastering chain. If they ever decide to double dip on this title and do a 45RPM release I may just have to double dip on the purchase as well.

AnalogJ's picture

Mikey, you usually go into more detail than you do here when comparing a new reissue to an original. I, too, have an original. It's VERY good. Not perfect vinyl, but you can tell it was very well recorded to begin with. It makes me think of the After Midnight Nat Cole sessions which Steve Hoffman remastered onto the 3-record 45rpm in terms of an astonishingly realistic recording. I would assume that the reissue takes this Ellington album into that After Midnight stratosphere?

Michael Fremer's picture
It's more fair to say remastered by Kevin Gray with Steve Hoffman...
Michael Fremer's picture
Yes of course. The problem was I sat on the test pressing until I got word it was finally on the press. That came as I was boarding for L.A. last Friday December 4th. I couldn't wait to write about the album so wrote and posted on the airplane and really didn't give it the deserved detail but the music speaks for itself and I figured the alert plus some background would suffice.
azmoon's picture

Thanks for the review and interesting background.

This will be the mono version correct?

Michael Fremer's picture
With tremendous space and depth... I played this at a recent event at Audio Advice in North Carolina and people were astonished...that's the right word for it.... one guy came back in and said it was the best sounding thing he'd heard at the entire event....
wao62's picture

Reading this review prompted me to re-listen to my Columbia six eye copy with the Blue tinted photo of Ellington on the cover (also a beautiful cover design). Really a great & essential American album well deserving of the '11' rating! I look forward to adding a second copy to my collection!

recordhead's picture

I look for the $1 box at the tables with the overpriced copies of Born In The USA and Thriller.

analogkid14's picture

Ellington said there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind...
My folks had a copy of Greatest Recorded Masterpieces from RCA Victor. It had Caruso, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Take the 'A' Train by Ellington, still one of my favorite all-time songs. The label was the famed "shaded dog" but I did not know that this was coveted by audiophiles, I just knew that Nipper is one of the best company logos ever.

Anyway, Ellington is good music, not the other kind, so I am looking forward to getting this when it comes out

turntabledoc's picture

I am beyond thrilled for this reissue. Probably my favorite jazz album. The music and the recording are as good as everyone says. Johnny Hodges hits his solo in "Mood Indigo" and just rips your heart clean out. It's so majestic.

Some interesting things to note: the original LP (the green Masterworks version) was actually mastered with the old "LP" EQ curve (pre-RIAA). Also, there was an edit added (subtracted, really) in the later 6-eye versions where vocalist Yvonne Lanauze comes in a bit off time on "Sophisticated Lady" -- I'm guessing this was "un-fixed" on the new version? I would think that would be the case with the master tapes. Michael -- do you know?

One other thing to note: per the recent Duke bio by Terry Teachout, the real genius behind this particular set of masterpieces is Billy Strayhorn. These are his arrangements, and they are absolutely breathtaking. He's also credited on piano (as is Duke), but I can never tell who is who on here.

I plan on getting the vinyl. Is there any plan to release this as a HiRes digital download? I think this would be a great release in that format.

Really excited about this release!

MrRom92's picture

I'm very interested in learning if the tape used here was pre-edit as I've never heard either version - it's possible Columbia performed the edit on a reel meant for the new LP but tapes were much less sacred back then, merely work parts, so they could have done it on the old session reel and used it. Who knows.

I'm pretty sure this is planned to come out as a hybrid SACD which means it will likely end up as a download as well.

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes, the original was the original Columbia curve but even via RIAA the original sounds great...I'll have to compare my versions to listen for the "un-fix". Thanks for so much worthwhile information..
miniguy7's picture

Pure Pleasure did a superb reissue of this title, ML 4639, recorded in 1951 and 52. The mono sound belies the age of the original recording. One song, "Skin Deep", was recorded at the Rainbow Ballroom, Fresno CA by Bert Porter. All other selections were recorded at Columbia's 30th Street Studio, NYC by Fred Plaut and Harold Chapman. A very nice feature of "Take the A Train" is Betty Roche's vocal.

faskenite's picture

'Uptown in Hi-Fi' has long been one of my favorites, in audio and musical terms. The version of "'A' Train"' with Betty Roche is amazing. For me this was the record that forever established that stereo does not mean better. It took me a long time to find a nice copy of this, but it is still undervalued and anyone who comes across a copy should grab it. Tout suite, as the Duke might say when putting on airs.

Paul Boudreau's picture

Ditto on "Ellington Uptown." Another nice book fair Ellington find for me was "Ellington '55." I was fortunate to see Louis Bellson reprise "Skin Deep" in 2000 at the Kennedy Center in DC.

Paul Boudreau's picture

...which Louis Bellson wrote, by the way.

Paul Boudreau's picture

Just checked and my copy of ML4639 has the blue Columbia Masterworks label. I thought I also had a green-label copy but maybe not. Not sure which was the original pressing. Just for kicks, I weighed it and got 190 grams. I double-checked with a 200-gram Classic Records LP and it came out as 195 grams, so something or other is slightly off.

Michael Fremer's picture
Agreed. I need to review the PP reissue too.
soundescape's picture

What I value most about Analog Planet are reviews like this one -- reviews which will lead me to discover music which I have never heard.
This LP I will buy as soon as possible. Thank you Mikey. Thanks fellow AP posters.

JoeESP9's picture

Thanks for the heads up. It's now on my short list.

booboos's picture

I enjoy reading about music and always learn from both Mr Fremer and the readers. We have been watching the series "Sonic Highways" on HBO - if you love music, loved the movie "Sound City" we encourage you to check it out. Like listening to a great piece of music - true art and genius.

Jack Gilvey's picture

I found this album on Tidal after reading the review and love it. Stunned at the sound quality given the age. Already have the album in my AS cart and will pull the trigger as soon as I hit free shipping. :-)

miniguy7's picture

This title was issued as CL 830 with the same selections as ML 4639, except "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" was replaced by “Controversial Suite”. The Pure Pleasure reissue of ML 4639 is much better than the original LP. Agree, the Betty Roche vocal is very special.

ravenacustic's picture

Just received my copy of Masterpiece and it is a stunner! Perhaps a little less shallow in soundstage than some of my other monos but the dynamics and texture will bowl any listener over. To think that these are tapes from 1950 is almost too hard to believe. This is my number one vinyl purchase for 2014.

Martin's picture

and on the way from Elusive disc with my next order

Rudy's picture

The only "extended" Ellington on shellac that I have is the 2-disc 12" set of "Black, Brown and Beige." It may not have been a popular size for pop music of the day, but when we cleaned out my grandparents' house, I had literally hundreds of 12" 78s, primarily classical. (Tons of Red Seals in there, I might add...and having moved them all, I would say literally tons!) This was the only non-classical 12" in the whole lot. My grandmother was musically the progressive one in the family. I'm not certain if this old shellac version of BB&B was ever reissued later on vinyl or digital, but she would have enjoyed this new Ellington reissue I'm sure.

That was quite the trend back then, BTW. When magnetic recording tape and LP came along, many re-recorded older works for the new format. And it happened again with stereo, the labels and/or artists wanting to get familiar music onto the new format.

jim Williams's picture

I called Music Direct on Dec. 9 to order this. It is on back order already. That's Fremer Power.

jazz and cocktails's picture

this may be crossing the streams, but I'm listening to this on Tidal right now, and it sounds fantastic. i'm sure the vinyl will sound even better, but this is pretty great.

uniqueusername's picture

Funny, I have seen this a few times before and again here, you review or mention an album and every available "for sale" copy on discogs disappears! I believe there were a dozen older pressings when I first saw this article, now, zero.

The Fremer Effect.

rshak47's picture

Michael - - My copy of the Ellington LP arrived earlier this week. It's everything you said it was - - - perhaps even more. Thanks for the tip!

Neverenough's picture

I don't mind the album cost, but $14 for S&H is just a plain ripoff. Really?

Jack Gilvey's picture

I wait until I need a few then get the free shipping. Mine arrived a couple days ago, simply stunning. You can revel just in the sound, but the music and story is engrossing as well. Why can't they sound like this any more?

DavidFell's picture

I ordered this LP immediately after reading your review and have already listened to it a half-dozen times. It's a beautiful-sounding album, and I had to remind myself more than once that this wide soundstage I seemed to be experiencing was coming from a mono record. A great example of well-recorded music, in a very high-quality pressing.

marmil's picture

This record, besides being one of the best in their discography, sounds absolutely fantastic on this new LP. I really hope that Analogue Productions does to other Ellington LPs what they've done with this one - especially "Indigos" and "...And His Mother Called him Bill." The latter was a tribute to the recently-deceased (1967) Billy Strayhorn, which, being so late in the careers of many of the players (i.e. Johnny Hodges - who started playing with Duke in 1928 and - with only a 4 year break from 1951-55 - played with him for all those years) is especially good.. But the record, and especially Hodges, are playing like there's no tomorrow. So I really hope that there's more Ellington to come from Analogue Productions. Also "Blues In Orbit," "Such Sweet Thunder," "Black, Brown & Beige (w/ Mahalia Jackson),etc.

Paul Boudreau's picture

...to my new copy for the first time and it is stunning: Great music and terrific sound. Recorded 64 years ago yesterday, imagine that.

762rob's picture

I just ordered this and really enjoy and appreciate your recommendations.
Till it arrives I will break out my CD copy again, and then later this week be able to play the new vinyl one.
I would love to see Midnight In Paris done this way, I have an original Lp and a 7 1/2 ups reel to reel but have never seen this one reissued.

Brother John's picture

night after late night listening session to this wonderful album on the Classic 1. This Is a record I want to hear to over and over again.
The music Is simply brilliant. I've got a sealed copy of "Blues In Orbit," that I've never heard and now I'm looking forward to giving that a spin.

Big thanks again Michael for the above awesome review. Best album I've heard all year long.

patony407's picture

I will always admit when you are correct. This effort is simply outstanding. 11 for sonics is not high enough. After listening to this yesterday I had to stop as everything else sounded dull and lifeless. WOW!
Now the latest Joni Mitchell "Court and Spark" reissue is another story. It is simply not in the league with the original pressing.

dayday's picture

My favorite local record store called today with the good news - my Duke Ellington record was ready for pickup! Thanks Mr. Fremer for the "heads up". Sounds beautiful!
Pics below :)


audiof001's picture

What a wonderful album this is. Simply stunning!

Bluejimbop's picture

Finally got our copy yesterday. At the conclusion of side one, GF & I sat in stunned silence until
He: Wow. That's the greatest Ellington I've ever heard. [And we have LOTS]
She: Yeah.
So thank you very much, Michael.