Duke Ellington: The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion and Okeh Small Group Sessions. Mosaic MD7-235 (7 CDs, 28 p. booklet). www.mosaicrecords.com
As 1936 drew to a close, music publisher and Ellington band manager Irving Mills decided to form a record company, primarily as a forum for getting his agency's tunes on wax. He established two labels; Master, which sported the full Ellington orchestra (plus others), retailed at 75 cents. Variety was the poor relation, whose products went for 35 cents, and whose catalog was enhanced by small group recordings made under the rotating leadership of Ellington stars Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, normally with seven to nine others drawn from the band's ranks, including Duke himself. Variety discs were wholesaled to juke box operators at nineteen cents, enhancing their appeal in post-Repeal taverns and other venues.
These sessions produced many successful records, including the hits "Caravan" (Bigard), "Jeep's Blues," "Prelude to a Kiss" and "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" (Hodges), and "Echoes of Harlem" (Williams). Though Mills abandoned Master/Variety in 1937, Ellington units continued to produce for ARC/Columbia budget labels Vocalion and Okeh through 1940. Small ensembles allowed the sidemen to be featured in greater relief and the music to sometimes be livelier than the more meticulous presentations of the full band. Though Sonny Greer and Harry Carney weren't among the leaders, their steadfast contributions were critical. Greer combined flashy and solidly propulsive elements in his drumming, and his sense of humor was often evident. Carney's baritone saxophone was a defining element throughout, whether as soloist or anchor of the reed section's harmonies. Annotator Steven Lasker notes Carney's absence from a March 1939 date, and the thin sound that resulted. Duke Ellington himself occupied the piano stool, becoming a sideman who occasionally soloed and always functioned superbly in the rhythm section.
Irving Mills picked many of the tunes. Some choices were better than others, but all got more memorable treatment from the Ellington pros than they'd have received elsewhere. Mills employed second-string pop singers when he needed to present lyrics along with melodies. To be generous, some voices were more equal to the task than others. The best sides were originals created by the participants, often whimsically titled and always immaculately crafted. Gourmet contributions like "Sponge Cake and Spinach," "Pigeons and Peppers," "Toasted Pickle," "Demi-Tasse" and "Ain't the Gravy Good?" confirm (along with contemporary photos) that the band ate well.
Other compositions came wholly or in part from Ellington himself and later from Billy Strayhorn, who contributed melodies and arrangements to later sessions, and sometimes replaced Duke at the piano. A few repertory pieces like "Black Beauty," "Clouds In My Heart" and "Stompy Jones" were recycled from Duke's earlier years. Pop standards that graced the Mills catalog like "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" and "A Blues Serenade" were also selected.
The blues appear frequently in numerous settings, and always with a welcome Ellington touch. …