Back in April of 2017, the Danish Storyville Records label released An Intimate Piano Session, the first commercial issue of some major solo work by pianist Duke Ellington. The tracks were recorded at Media Sound Recording Studios in Manhattan, all on August 25, 1972, at a time when Ellington was performing with a small group at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Storyville has established itself as a major source of historical jazz performances, although most of those performances have taken place in Europe, rather than in the United States. Nevertheless, my personal opinions about the label have been decidedly variable, leaving me, as I put it at the beginning of this year, “significantly less than sanguine.”
courtesy of Naxos of America
As a result, when Storyville released its latest Ellington album, Berlin 1959, I was not quite sure what to expect. Note that the above hyperlink points to the Bandcamp Web page, since the one created by Amazon.com is pathetically devoid of useful background content (including the absence of a track listing). To be fair, this is a two-CD release; and Bandcamp enumerates the tracks from 1 to 28. For those interested in the physical release, the first CD accounts for the first eleven tracks; and the second includes the remaining seventeen.
It is also worth noting that, in July of 2013, Sounds of Yesteryear released a two-CD album entitled The Famous Berlin Concert 1959. These two albums overlap, but each has tracks that are not on the other! Sadly, I do not have production details for either of these albums, which means that I am not sure what was recorded when. My guess is that all of the recordings were made at the Sportpalast in Berlin, but I do not know if Ellington and his band gave only a single concert. Nevertheless, the Bandcamp Web page provides a bit of background about the venue that probably deserves repeating:
Berlin’s Sportpalast is not a concert hall and during the cursed Nazi reign often was the site of speeches by Hitler and his fellow criminals, but the hall can be said to have been thoroughly purified by sounds of jazz by the time of this concert.
“Purification” aside, the tracks on the Storyville album at least suggest that acoustic conditions were not particularly favorable. Indeed, if the tracks were recorded in the order in which they were performed, one could easily speculate that the recording team had not yet found the best placement for their microphones before the performance began. Fortunately, recording quality gradually improves as one advances from one track to the next.
That said, there is much to enjoy in the performances themselves. These include a generous number of vocals provided by Lil Greenwood. However, I was more interested in Ellington’s decision to include “Skin Deep” on the program.
This was composed by drummer Louis Bellson, presumably during the time when he was Ellington’s drummer. (As an aside, I was fortunate enough to see Bellson when he was a guest artist for the annual summer jazz festival held at Stanford University during the late Nineties. On that occasion he had supervised the reconstruction of the entire Black, Brown and Beige concert, which was first performed in Carnegie Hall in January of 1943. Bellson was not the drummer on that occasion.) The drummer in Berlin was Jimmy Johnson, but it was easy to appreciation Bellson’s spirit hovering in the background.