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The Duke's Men: Small Groups, Vol. 1

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Editors’ Notes

Escaping the rigors of the full orchestra, Duke Ellington’s small-group sessions allowed the band to relax and jam. It gave the maestro a chance to feature his most prominent sidemen in a looser setting and gave them leadership roles. Spanning December 1934 to January 1938, this set is filled with nifty little gems (often with rather sly arrangements) that are no less rewarding for their casual atmosphere. The various bands — ranging in size from six to nine, sometimes with a vocalist added — tried out some new tunes, borrowed some from the big band’s book, fiddled with standards and Tin Pan Alley, or perhaps wrote vamps on the spot. There are exuberant blowing showcases, mysterious mood pieces, sweet ballads, and quirky novelties. “Indigo Echoes,” a sinuous, seductively slow bluesy number from 1935, features two bassists (and no drummer) behind Rex Stewart (cornet), Johnny Hodges (soprano), Harry Carney (baritone), and the Duke on piano. A session in December of 1936, led by clarinetist Barney Bigard and featuring trumpeter Cootie Williams and trombonist Juan Tizol, yielded four treasures: the bittersweet “Clouds in My Heart,” a playful “Frolic Sam,” Tizol’s exotic “Caravan” (recorded here for the first time), and “Stompy Jones,” one from the orchestra’s repertoire. A Stewart-led session from July of 1937 is also particularly strong, including the vivacious “Back Room Romp” and cheerful “Love In My Heart.”


Born: April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C.

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Duke Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz as well as being a bandleader who held his large group together continuously for almost 50 years. The two aspects of his career were related; Ellington used his band as a musical laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers, many of whom remained with him for long periods. Ellington also wrote film scores and stage musicals, and several of his instrumental works...
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