IMPEX Reissues Ellington Columbia Classic AAA

Starting in 1954 the late veteran DJ William B. Williams hosted a long-running radio show on WNEW-AM called "Make Believe Ballroom" (a name, coincidentally, we also used at summer camp for kids who prematurely wore jock straps before they really had a need to).

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.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Jim Tavegia's picture

I just finished reading All or Nothing At All: A Life of Frank Sinatra and the author, Donald Clarke, talks specifically about the bump in the road from the Swing Era to Rock and Roll. I love FS and this style of music and am now buying the reissues of FS lps. 

This will be a good one to add to my collection.



Michael Fremer's picture

These are great vinyl times for FS fans, that is for sure!

malosuerte's picture

I have this album, and I agree with your sentiments.  The musicianship is incredible and you really are taken for a musical ride.  The sound really knocks you off your feet.  It is easy to forget that this was recorded so long ago because the soundfield is very impressive.  

These Impex reissues are just incredible.  I have to say that they are pitching a perfect game so far.

If anybody reading this hasn't had the chance to hear hear Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" on Impex, do yourself a favor and buy it asap.  Another outstanding title.

Michael T's picture

This is my favorite Duke Ellington album (along with the Ellington/Coltrane on Implulse).  I remember talking with Mike Hobbs of Classic at the 1997 Stereophile show in San Franscisco and asking him to please release this.  Unfortunately it never happened. 

I wish someone would release the extended version of "Autumn Leaves" that appears on the CD on vinyl.  Maybe a 12" single cut at 45 rpm.

I appreciate the information about the source - a 1:1 copy at 30 ips.  Unfortunately web sites are already listing this as being mastered from the original tape.

Thanks for the tip on this release.  I will be placing an order.

ThaddeusHeffner's picture

I did have my own copy of the album. And I can honestly say that once you start listening to the music, you just can't help yourself from getting over with it. This was actually my experience. - Thaddeus Heffner

elliotdrum's picture

Sorry but I was disappointed in the sound quality of this Impex reissue.

Comparing it to the CD reissue from 1989 on the Columbia Jazz Master-

pieces cd which sounded to me, was mastered from the original master tape.

The Impex sounded thin and edgy in comparison. Yes I know that those reading

this will think I'm nut's or deaf (could be) or? but that's what I hear.

The Pure Pleasure LP's of Ellington's Nutcracker Suite and the Ellington-Basie

First Time! The Count Meets The Duke are fantastic sounding LP's and I was

hopeful that Indigos would sound great too!

No I don't have a $100,000 plus T.T. system but I do have a VPI Classic 1 with

a Shelter 501 Mk2 cart. Phono stage is a Modwright LS100 tube Preamp.

With this pkg I can hear differences in sound quality in record to record.

The music on Indigos is fabulous with the sound of a large ballroom ambience.

One of the highlights for me is Shorty Bakers's trumpet solo on Willow Weep

For Me. Lyrical with a beautiful tone. I have close to a 100 or so Ellington's in

my collection and this is one of my favorites.

So 10 for music -5 for sound.

I usually agree with Mike in regards to sound quality especially The Band-The

Band on MoFi not from Original Master's sounded really great !

*Also there was a TV and Radio show in Los Angeles called Make Believe Ballroom

that started in the early 50's with Al Jarvis and Betty White was the co-host-

That show was on many years and had tons of music artists*.

Just a little trivia........... thanks.

oldrocker's picture

I have the CBS Jazz Masterpieces CD of "Ellington at Newport" and it does sound very good indeed. I think this series was also released on vinyl. Anyone out there happen to have the vinyl version of "Solitudes" and care to share their thoughts on the sound quality?

RCZero's picture

I have an original stereo copy of this, I got it from a thrift store for $.50, and generally, the surface noise sounds exactly like that, despite how much I try to clean it. Nevertheless, the music and the sound really shine through it all, and I find myself listening through the surface noise like a fool on several nights recently! It's just such a great sounding album! Today I was able to find this impex reissue, along with a few other reissues, on some other audio websites. I might need to pick this up, especially while the LP summer sales are still going on! Question: what does it mean when you say 30 IPS? What is that kind of tape versus the original master? Thanks for the education.

RCZero's picture

… That in line with the review, I am 35, and I "get it "! Track one is the "set up". Get ready, tracks two and three are coming! The whole album is great. I wish more music sounded like this. I need to find a list of albums that have this genuine sound, across any genre.