Perhaps the record companies are saving up for a Christmas splurge, but whatever the reason there have been few of their products worth playing more than halfway through within the past few weeks. None of the smaller companies specializing in jazz records--Blue Note, Commodore, and Signature--have produced anything this fall. The larger companies turn out their usual quota of bagatelles and trivia every week, but only here and there does a pearl of price appear, a record which can be listened to more than once with unabated enjoyment.
In this quest for a brief three minutes of entertainment, there are fortunately a few names which rarely disappoint. Everyone raves about Duke Ellington, and his bandwagon is one on which I have long been riding. Duke has abandoned the overwrought orchestrations he was writing a few years ago, and has reverted to arrangements more in the jazz idiom, with wider opportunities for his soloists. Last week he turned out Five O'clock Drag and Clementine, two original riff numbers arranged in the Ellington tradition of unexpected effects and frequent dissonance's, particularly in the brass section. Clementine is not the "Oh My Darling" ditty, but just another Ellington vehicle by his arranger, Billy Strayhorn. On both sides Ben Webster and Rex Stewart are presented with several grooves of wax, which they use to excellent advantage. On Clementine Rex blows a fine solo, exploiting the valves on his trumpet in the style he set in his Boy Meets Horn exhibition of a few years ago.
But Ben Webster is the man to watch in Ellington's band from now on. With Chu Berry dead in a motor accident some weeks ago and Coleman Hawkins playing with only infrequent imagination, Ben has little competition among his follow exponents of the tenor saxophone, and Duke is giving him ample leeway. On these two records he plays rich, flowing solos in a smooth, generally conjunct melodic line, supported chiefly by a well recorded rhythm section. There are no limits to Ellington's opportunities for solo improvisation in his band. I notice that the Duke has another record out today, and where last week he let Rex and Ben Webster loose, so today it may be Bigard's clarinet, Hodges' alto, or any of three trombones, which gets a chance to dazzle. And since Ellington is generally conceded to be at least a decade ahead of everyone, except perhaps his imitators, that record will be worth hearing--more than once.