November 13, 1989 12:00 PM

Duke Ellington

Ellington was a man of imperturbable cool. When Pulitzer Prize officials decided in 1965 that his music was not serious enough to merit their stamp of recognition, Ellington responded with characteristic sarcasm. “Fate has been kind to me,” he said. “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” He was 66.

Now, 15 years after Ellington’s death from cancer at age 75, music scholars are still loath to give him his proper due. But The Private Collection adds to the already compelling evidence that the maestro of jazz more than deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as such modern classicists as Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók.

The previously unreleased music on these 10 individually packaged compact disks constitutes what Ellington described as his “stockpile.” Volumes 2 and 4 capture the crackling energy of two live, dance-band dates in California in 1958. The remaining volumes document various, mostly informal, studio sessions between 1956 and 1971. Recorded at Ellington’s expense, during gaps in a relentless schedule of one-night stands, these jam-fests are relaxed and adventurous and represent jazz at its swinging best.

Nearly all of the songs from Ellington’s popular repertoire are included in this treasure trove. His band’s remarkable ability to bring a sense of freshness to the familiar is particularly evident in alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’s melancholy rendering of “Sophisticated Lady.” Trumpeter Cootie Williams’s return to the band in 1962, after a 22-year absence, was the occasion for an especially convivial session on Volume 3. But perhaps the biggest surprise throughout these sessions is the playing of multi-instrumentalist Ray Nance. Though he never achieved the star status of some of his peers, Nance’s cornet work on “Jeep’s Blues,” on Volume 4, reveals why Ellington praised him as a musician with “perfect taste.”

The Private Collection is at times akin to the sketchbook of a great painter. Volume 4, for example, includes a tentative 1963 version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” that presaged a more dynamic performance three years later on The Far East Suite (RCA). But the spontaneity, looseness and musical daring that characterize these studio sessions are also the source of their greatest charm.

The real musical gems are selections from Ellington’s more extended works. Volume 10 features a rare, unedited version of “Black, Brown and Beige,” an epic historical tone poem, as well as “Harlem,” one of Ellington’s most successful symphonic pieces. “The Degas Suite,” on Volume 5, was intended to be the sound track for an art film featuring Impressionist paintings of horse racing. The film was never completed, but the suite, released here for the first time, is a masterpiece.

Unlike classical composers, Ellington considered the unique styles and timbres of his individual band members when he wrote music. “Duke plays the piano,” Strayhorn once remarked. “But his real instrument is his band.” The Private Collection offers an unprecedented glimpse of Ellington’s working methods as a bandleader, and of the collaborative process of composition that was the hallmark of his genius. (SAJA)

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