Any significant band leader who stays in the public eye long enough will end up sparking arguments among aficionados about their “greatest” ensemble. Most have two or three groups that could be debated; Duke Ellington had four or five. This iteration, the 1940s orchestra with bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, is always near the top, and this mammoth collection provides powerful evidence in support of that assertion.
Complete Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings moves through a staggering array or material and styles. Immediately apparent is how galvanizing an effect the youngster Jimmy Blanton had on the band. The first “modern” bassist, he added a buoyancy and propulsion to the rhythm section that was entirely new in jazz. He also streamlined the time feel, moving it away from the 2/4 meter of his predecessors. His solo on “Jack the Bear” was likely the most closely studied bass piece of its day. Ben Webster brought tremendous muscle to his up-tempo features like “Cottontail,” an irresistible swing to “Perdido,” and a deep but never saccharine emotionalism to ballads like “My Little Brown Book.”
Still, it’s vastly reductive to suggest that these two catalysts made the band. As always, the Ellington orchestra was filled with unique soloists, all of whom were given specialty arrangements. “Concerto for Cootie” gives the eponymous Mr. Williams a chance to show off the expressivity of his plunger mute, “All Too Soon” lets you languish in the luxurious phrasing of trombonist Lawrence Brown, and Johnny Hodges takes you to another world on “Warm Valley.” In classics like “Koko,” “Harlem Air Shaft” and “Sophisticated Lady,” Ellington’s compositions and orchestrations need no star soloist: They remain among the most significant works in jazz.