One of the least-used compliments in the average critic's vocabulary is the word "consistent"; few scribes come out of a great concert exclaiming, "That was one of the most consistent shows ever!" But consistency is an important artistic attribute, particularly for a performer who hungers for career longevity, and Duke Ellington was blessed with a surplus of it. His recordings cover a span from the 1920s to the 1970s, yet Ellington never seems to have phoned in any of them. His work is invariably marked by great care and greater professionalism -- and if scribes don't often use those terms, either, they should start.
The Duke isn't heard on Secret Ellington, but his compositions certainly are. The recording is based upon numbers that Ellington, crucial collaborator Billy Strayhorn and lyricist Herb Martin wrote for 1958's Saturday Laughter, a Broadway show that never made it to Broadway. In a day and age when theatrical extravaganzas have been built around the music of acts such as Elton John and ABBA, the idea that a project with an Ellington score went unproduced is difficult to comprehend. Sure, the subject matter (apartheid in South Africa) was ultracontroversial at the time, but wouldn't music this good have compensated?
Apparently not -- but producer Todd Barkan and a strong vocal and instrumental cast do a good job of revealing what theatergoers missed. The rich singing of Jeffrey Smith makes "Full of Shadows" a moody standout, and the sinuous saxophone of the late Grover Washington Jr. adds sparkle to the lovely "They Say," crooned by Freddy Cole. Just as diverting is the quasi-samba of "New Shoes" and the finger-popping "Big White Mountain," both arranged by Joe Beck. The last two songs place Ellington (and Strayhorn) in a more modern context without in any way diluting their effortless intelligence.
Those interested in a slice of late-period Duke will likely be pleased by 1969: All-Star White House Tribute, a concert recorded on the occasion of Ellington's 70th birthday, when the Medal of Freedom was bestowed upon him. The supporting players, including Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, J.J. Johnson, Clark Terry and Joe Williams -- whose bottomless pipes distinguish "Come Sunday" and Heritage" -- are nothing less than spectacular. And although there's comparatively little stretching out, owing to the use of a medley format, the versions of favorites such as "Satin Doll" and "Caravan," as well as lesser-known offerings like "Drop Me Off in Harlem," are rendered with skill that was honed over a lifetime. Adding to the fun is the knowledge that then-President Richard Nixon, arguably the least swingy man to hold the office, was sitting in the front row; in fact, the final cut, "Pat," is a sly piano improvisation Ellington named for the first lady, Pat Nixon.
If Ellington could remain consistent in the presence of these two anti-hipsters, he could do it anytime, anywhere.