Ellington Uptown – Duke Ellington

Artist: Duke Ellington

Year: 1952

Genre: Big Band

Put-it-on-a-Playlist: “Skin Deep,” “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”

Grade: A

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 greatest drummers of all time, 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.

So, is jazz inherently better than rock? Tough to say, but here’s some more food for thought: a jazz “suite” is typically 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) could have learned a few lessons.

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 withy every orchestra member clearly recognizable. A perfect amount of reverb is also a key ingredient, while doubling down as the secret weapon of Bellson’s legendary solo.

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