Artist: Duke Ellington
Put-it-on-a-Playlist: “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Reflections in D”
Many consider the early ‘50s to be a “down” period for Ellington. Big band was going out of style, and so too was the Duke’s popularity. But his critical standing never wavered — for the third straight decade, he remained the world’s most respected jazz musician.
Whatever the financial situation of the charismatic bandleader may have been, several of Ellington’s finest albums were released in this relatively penurious period. By 1953, he was riding the heels of a highly underrated hot streak — Masterpieces by Ellington (long stretched-out standards), Ellington Uptown (big band with ambition) and the stripped-down Duke Plays Ellington.
While Uptown may be the best and Masterpieces the most intricate, The Duke Plays is probably my favorite. The simple trio of Ellington, Wendell Marshall (bass) and Butch Ballard (drums) makes for a minimal approach, yet the elegant chord voicings of Duke’s piano fills as much space as a big band would.
It’s great to hear Ellington in a relaxed bebop setting, especially when his playing is the most modern of his career. “Reflections in D” and “Prelude to a Kiss” are quite impressionistic in the way they traverse from scene to scene, while “Retrospective,” a soothing ballad, seems to have a bit of soul in its powerful chord changes. Not far behind is “Dancers in Love,” a playful rag whose first 40-or-so seconds seem to inspire rock ‘n’ roll.
This album was meant to be off-the-cuff — Ellington takes a break and improvises the piano. A critical re-evaluation finds this as one of the most unique releases of his legendary career. It’s a shame he didn’t release more solo work such as this, but that is exactly what makes The Duke Plays Ellington so valuable. A once-in-a-lifetime record from a once-in-a-genre artist.