Artist: Duke Ellington
Genre: Big Band
Put-it-on-a-Playlist: “Skin Deep,” “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”
A drum solo in jazz is better than a drum solo in rock. Compare “Skin Deep” — the opening track of 1952’s Ellington Uptown — to, say, Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” which is perhaps the most famous of all recorded rock ‘n’ roll drum solos. Not to disrespect John Bonham, who is surely one of the best drummers to ever live, but it is no contest between the two — “Moby Dick” is, as they say, just noise compared to the thunderous rhythms and melodicism of Louie Bellson’s 4-minute “Skin Deep” showcase.
Don’t even get me started on Neil Peart.
Jazz stays winning — an extended jazz “suite” is usually better than its rock counterpart. Case in point: Ellington’s 14-minute “Harlem.”
The composition is a sort-of non-classical tone poem, working its way through a variety of sentimental moods, perfectly flowing from one musical idea to the next. The transitions are never choppy or forced. Once again, Rush (or ELP or Jethro Tull or even Yes) should have been taking notes .
Ellington Uptown is quite possibly Duke’s finest album (his 1930s recordings remain his best work, but that’s a different story). One of the more underrated aspects is the crystalline production — George Avakian culls a wholesome performance that that still singles out the individual musicians, right down to each member of the orchestra.
Ellington Uptown reverberates as one of the Duke’s most underrated artistic statements.