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Duke Ellington, “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band” (RCA, 2003; tracks recorded 1940-42)

This 75-track, three-CD set from Duke Ellington's RCA dates from 1940 to 1942, was culled from the massive, 1999 Bluebird mega-set. It's named for bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Blanton's astonishing technique made him one of the greatest bass players of all time, and Webster's warm, raw-boned tenor tones inspired future saxophonists. Along with the famous Ellingtonians, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trumpeter Cootie Williams, violinist Ray Nance, and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, the addition of Blanton and Webster, along with the arrival of composer/arranger/pianist Billy Strayhorn, make this aggregation Ellington's first "superband."

All the vivid and varied dimensions of Ellingtonia are included in this digitally remastered set, with songs written by his son, Mercer. There's Ellington's silky blues numbers such as "Jack the Bear" and "C-Jam Blues." The Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol's "Conga Brava," "Moon Over Cuba," and "Bakiff" contribute Latin and Middle Eastern colors. "Harlem Airshaft" and "Sepia Panorama" are but two examples of Ellington's tonal portraits. The legendary Ellington/Blanton duets, with the bouncy "Pitter Panther Patter" and the emotive "Sophisticated Lady" still sound modern. Webster's surging, pre-bop solos drive the George Gershwin-based "Cottontail," and soulfully signature Strayhorn's ballad "Chelsea Bridge." This set also marks the introduction of other Strayhorn's classics, including "Take the 'A' Train" and "Johnny Come Lately." All told, these World War II-era sides are essential for the Ellington canon. Eugene Holley, Jr.


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