ELLINGTON: Harlem (orch. Peress). Black, Brown, and Beige Suite (orch. Peress). Three Black Kings (orch. M. Ellington). The River (orch. Collier). STRAYHORN: Take the "A" Train (arr. E. Ellington).
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Faletta.
Naxos 8.559737 TT: 78:30

Misbegotten from the get-go. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington has finally come into something like his own after years of ignorant and ignoring patronizing from many within the classical-music crowd. The same happened to George Gershwin. In his classic Music in a New Found Land, the British critic Wilfrid Mellers may have been the first to link the two in a meaningful way. Gershwin approached jazz from the perspective of classical music, while Ellington approached classical music from the perspective of jazz. At any rate, since the stigma of "vulgarity" has largely been removed from Ellington's music, symphony orchestras want to play him, both for the high quality of the music and because, as with Gershwin, they know they can fill seats.

The problem is that Ellington was one of the great orchestrators of all time, and he wrote specifically for an entity known as the Ellington Band. He chose the players, he knew the players and their individual sounds, and he had the uncanny ear to merge these highly idiosyncratic colors into a powerful ensemble. The critic Terry Teachout notes that Ellington routinely chose players whose sounds didn't "fit in" neatly. Somehow he heard both their individual contribution and their place in the whole. The Ellington Band sounded like no other, and in some ways they sounded rougher, less streamlined than the Basie, the Lunceford, the Goodman, or (certainly) the Miller band. A major strength of Ellington's music is its color, in many senses of the word, and no other composer or arranger for the big swing bands, excepting Billy Strayhorn, came close to Ellington's orchestral audacity, variety, and sheer flair.

This is just to say that none of these arrangements, save one, come up to Ellington, let alone improve him. Furthermore, almost all of them exist in Duke's own recordings. So why would you want this? What aesthetic purpose does it serve? I can understand the need and the art of arranging one of Ellington's songs or short dance pieces for a specific singer or group, but not of Ellington's big works. He should be treated as you would treat Bach or Beethoven. At least give him the chance to fail or succeed on his own. It almost doesn't matter how well sham Ellington is done, it's still sham Ellington. Why settle?

All that said, I'd still like to say some words about Black, Brown, and Beige and Three Black Kings. The first is probably Ellington's masterpiece, even though he prettified the 1943 original. That original ran close to three-quarters of an hour. Ellington intended it as a history and celebration of African-Americans in the United States. It is by far his most ambitious work. The critics mauled it. Fortunately somebody recorded the concert, and it's available on CD (Prestige 2PCD-34004-2). The work speaks with incredible power, a classic case of initial critical cluelessness. Hurt, Ellington withdrew the piece, and later salvaged some of the music into a kind of Official Portrait. He hacked out ten minutes and prettified the orchestration. It's still Ellington and therefore worth listening to, but I think he did himself no favors. The result is too smooth by half, compared to the raw original, and that rawness I consider the score's major strength.

Ellington, a world-class procrastinator, left the ballet Three Black Kings unfinished at the time of his death. His son, Mercer Ellington, completed the work. Mercer had years of experience arranging for the Ellington Band and understood its sound as well as anyone else alive. His art resulted in one of his father's most beautiful scores, three meditations on "The King of the Magi," "King Solomon," and "Martin Luther King," the last intended as an elegy. "MLK" swings gracefully and easily without a trace of the somber, capturing the dignity of its subject.

JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalodians give fine readings in great sound. They actually swing without sounding like stiffs. Maurice Peress does much of the same material on a Nimbus import, but Falletta passes him. Unfortunately, she also competes mainly against Duke himself and predictably comes up short.

I complain about Naxos's production. The program list gives the year of Three Black Kings, which the notes describe as "the last score to emerge from Ellington's prolific pen" as 1934. Ellington died in 1974. He may have put things off, but never by that much.

S.G.S. (October 2014)