Judge Steve Evans recommends this disc for all hep cats and sophisticated ladies.
"By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with."—Duke Ellington.
Big-band leader and pianist Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington lays down 13 tracks of classic jazz, interspersed with incredible dance numbers in this public-domain footage assembled by Passport Video and distributed by Koch Entertainment.
What a joy it is to see and hear these performances. Ellington and his crew are clearly having a blast—snapping their fingers, bopping and wailing on their instruments for the sheer love of music. When the Duke isn't seducing sweet notes from his piano, he's conducting a tight orchestra; these cats swing.
"Stormy Weather" remains a seriously sultry number, presented here with a series of remarkable lap dissolves and screen wipes that fill the frame with expanding quarter-notes and clefs. These are wonderful transitional devices that keep the tracks hopping between Ellington and his big band, and the dance numbers peppered through several of the songs. Think of this compilation as the granddaddy of music videos.
"VIP Boogie" and "Mood Indigo" are welcome additions, representing some of the Duke's finest work. Sadly, his greatest compositions are missing from the set, possibly owing to copyright issues, so the disc is by no means definitive. Better to think of this package as an attractively priced sampler of vintage performances that may well whet the appetite for further exploration of the Duke's music.
The 70-year-old footage is remarkably clean, compared to titles of similar age recently released by the major studios. Good compression on the transfer, too: No digital artifacts were observed during the scant 45-minute running time. Audio is a limitation of the source material, here presented in the original mono, with Dolby digital filtering to minimize the pops and crackles.
Since the disc provides no context or information about the artist, here is a bit of background:
Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was leading his own orchestra by the time he was 19, touring the District and Virginia. He moved to New York in 1927 and for five years was a fixture at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. A prodigy on piano, he composed hundreds of the most enduring ballads and jazz compositions of the big band era, including "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Satin Doll."
In their heyday throughout the 1930s—and continuing well into the '60s—Ellington and his band toured the world. The Duke worked with virtually every legend in jazz—Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, and Dizzy Gillespie among them. A lifelong smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1974 at the age of 75.
Points are deducted for a disc devoid of any supplemental material. There's not even a static slide show of badly needed biographical information. It would also be interesting to pinpoint the time and location of the performances, but that information is likewise MIA. The strength of the material and the rare footage are the main selling points. Other DVDs plumb the Duke's catalog to greater depth, and some offer tracks remixed in Dolby stereo, but those discs come with a proportionately higher retail price.
As a testament to a musical virtuoso, this DVD at best offers a mere sampling of what the Duke and his band could do at the height of their glory. But as an affordable point of entry into a great period for jazz, it's a great way for newcomers to discover what all the fuss was about.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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