Music Review: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - The Ellington Suites (Pablo 40th Anniversary Edition)

The reissue of perhaps the rarest album in the world.
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As part of the 40th anniversary of Pablo Records, the Concord Music Group have been reissuing select classics from their catalog. The Ellington Suites by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra is among the latest batch, and contains one of the rarest, and most beautiful musical suites I have ever heard.

I am speaking of the "Queen's Suite," which was composed and recorded in 1959 for Queen Elizabeth II. Ellington pressed a single vinyl copy of it, presented it to the Queen, then destroyed the acetate. I have heard of single pressings before, done as artistic statements, but never of anything on this level. The Queen's copy could be considered the rarest record in the world.

Duke Ellington passed away in 1974, at the age of 75. While the acetate of the "Queen's Suite" had been destroyed, the original tape of the session still existed. In 1976, Norman Granz added  "Goutelas Suite," and "Uwis Suite" to "Queen's" to create a Pablo album titled The Ellington Suites. The recordings have been remastered and reissued, along with a newly-discovered bonus track titled "The Kiss."

I am embarrassed to admit that I have not listened to a whole lot of Ellington's music. I have no excuse really, other than a musical blind-spot. Maybe I thought it would be too old-fashioned or something. But after hearing the "Queen's Suite," I know that I have to hear more. It is absolutely gorgeous, and has confirmed for me once and for all that he is an artist I should be much more familiar with.

The "Queen's Suite" (17:29) is a six-movement composition which occupied the first side of the Pablo LP. The Duke was very much at the height of his powers in 1959, and his all-star orchestra included Cat Anderson, Shorty Baker, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Jimmy Hamilton, and Johnny Hodges, among others.

The two suites that occupied the second side of the LP were conceived much later than "Queen's." The six-movement "Goutelas" (11:29) is  from 1971, and the three-part "Uwis" (15:49) hails from 1972.

The "Goutelas Suite" was inspired by a visit to a 13th century French chateau, and the highlight of it is "Something" (5:22). This is a lovely ballad, surrounded by some rather odd pieces. The movement immediately preceding "Something" is "Get-With-Itness" (1:55). Rather than describe it myself, I will defer to the liner notes of Ashley Kahn: "Get-With-Itness" has the flavor of a hip TV-theme."

The liner notes were helpful in the case of the "Uwis Suite" also. As it turns out, "Uwis" was composed for a week-long celebration of  Ellington's music at the University of Wisconsin, in 1972. At 9:08, the third movement, "Loco-Madi," is over half the length the entire "Queen's Suite." Of these later two compositions, I prefer the "Uwis Suite."

The bonus "The Kiss" is a very nice, self-contained ballad, apparently recorded at the same time as "Uwis," but otherwise unrelated.

The Ellington Suites won the Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Big Band in 1976, and the release itself must have been an amazing event at the time. I was much too young in 1976 to appreciate Duke Ellington, but I certainly do now.

The "Queen Suite" is magnificent, and even though the other two suites are not quite as powerful, they are still very good. The Ellington Suites is a definite highlight of the Pablo catalog, and I am very happy that it has been reissued. If you have never heard it, or are anything like me, and somehow have not yet really immersed yourself in the music of Ellington yet, get it. By all means, get it. I was knocked out at just how good it is.