Well, I'm still only about half-way through Duke Ellington, but I figured I'd better check in. I'm still feeling overwhelmed and underqualified to talk about this stuff meaningfully, but perhaps posting some thoughts on what I've gotten through will prompt a discussion which will illuminate the remainder of the Ellington on my shelves.
So here's what I've listened to so far (please forgive the repetition of adjectives for "great". This is some seriously amazing music):
PIANO REFLECTIONS -- fantastic stuff, alternately playful and beautiful (and sometimes both.) Most of this stuff is just a trio; Duke on keys, Wendell Marshall on bass, and Butch Ballard on drums. I'm not familiar with those two sidemen, but their work here is soulful and charming. Really wonderful.
THREE SUITES -- Duke and his orchestra barrel through amazing rendtions of Tchaicovsky and Grieg classics. The third suite is an Ellington-Strayhorn original which is also good, but perhaps due to it being less familiar, not as exciting to me. Still pretty great though. A triumph.
BLUES IN ORBIT -- small band (10-piece) sides from 1958. Awesome stuff -- really cooks.
STUDIO SESSIONS VOL. 8 1957, 1965, 1966, 1967 SAN FRANCISCO CHICAGO NEW YORK -- more small-band stuff. This disc really rocks and it hangs together surprisingly well considering the leaps in time and geography. Lots of fantastic drumming on these tracks (Louie Bellson!) All Duke originals. The last 4 tracks are fucking amazing, utilizing rock and r&b beats without abandoning any of the swinging. This one got several listens before I moved on.
MONEY JUNGLE -- excellent trio sides with Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. All over the map -- some straight-up beautiful ballads, some far-out wiggy jams, and some sizzling hot grooves. Some pretty out-there stuff (esp. for 1962) but there's never any doubt these guys are playing TOGETHER -- even when someone takes a solo and seems to be going bonkers, they always come back in on a solid groove(, man.) Mingus particularly shines. This has been a favorite of mine for years and nothing on this listen did anything to diminish my high estimation of it.
BACK TO BACK: DUKE ELLINGTON AND JOHNNY HODGES PLAY THE BLUES -- as the title suggests, this is some bluesy jazz (another clue: all but one track's title ends with "Blues".) Johnny and Duke are joined only by trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums, so there's some serious '50s cool going down. Marvelous stuff.
DUKE ELLINGTON & FRIENDS - COMPACT JAZZ -- This was the first Duke album I ever owned and it's a fine enough introductory sampler, I suppose (if not where I would start initiating someone) but it really is just a hodge-podge. It spans 1954-1966 and really runs the gamut style-wise. Lots of great stuff here, to be sure, but there's no flow and very few liner notes, which fail to make the case that there's anything particularly special about this group of recordings. All Duke originals, many standards -- the sole exception being my favorite version of the Billy Strayhorn-penned Ellington theme song "Take The 'A' Train" sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Some live, some studio. Like I said, a real hodge-podge. But it's certainly an interesting hodge-podge.
JUKEBOX HITS 1941-1951 -- It's easy to forget when taking the longview of Ellington that while he's indisputably one of the finest composers of the 20th century and a jazz pioneer possibly without equal, dude was also a massive hit machine, at least for the WWII years, racking up 5 consecutive #1s on the Billboard R&B chart and 7 other Top 10 hits from '42-'45. This is pure dance music from start to finish. Whether jumping rhythm numbers or melancholy ballads all of these songs were clearly conceived to get people on the dancefloor. There are a couple of vocals which are less-than-stellar (Herb Jeffries is no Al Hibbler), but the band cooks throughout and there's plenty of opportunities for them to stretch out a little. Delightful stuff (or fluff, if you prefer.)
THE GREAT LONDON CONCERTS -- 1964 Big Band recording, played to an appreciative crowd. Nice mix of hits and longer pieces ("Harlem" is a particular standout in the latter category.) Adorable banter from Duke, especially when he refers to "the kids in the band". A bunch of pros at the top of their game. Wonderful stuff.
JAZZ PARTY IN STEREO -- Groovy big-band session from 1959. Some of these tunes -- particularly those featuring the percussion section -- are almost Space-Age Bachelor Pad music, and with Dizzy Gillespie on-hand, things get extra-cheeky. Throw in a fine Jimmy Rushing blues and you've got a recipe for one hell of a party record. Great stuff!