Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige finally arrives

BBB 1Black, Brown and Beige was at the time of its debut Ellington’s most misunderstood and under appreciated work.  The 1943 Carnegie Hall Concert live recording presents the work in its only Ellington-led complete form.  But after the initial critical trashing of the work he performed it once more, and then removed it from his band’s book except for the song “Come Sunday”, a feature for Johnny Hodges, or less often as a female vocal number. BBB 2Fifteen years would pass before Ellington would again attempt to record the work in some kind of complete fashion, however, Ellington omitted all of Brown, replaced Beige with a setting of the 23rd Psalm, and added a vocal version of “Come Sunday,” which was heard for the first time with lyrics. The ostensible reason for these changes was the presence of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.  Despite the revised and abridged nature of the recording it is still an important document of this work.

More than six decades would pass before Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra would present the work in its original form, with orchestrations meticulously re-created from the original Ellington manuscript BBB 3(which was more of a sketch), an almost complete set of instrumental parts and filling in the gaps with transcriptions of the 1943 recording.  Despite this recording’s somewhat fragile provenance, this recording which was released in 2020, from a live concert in 2018, presents the work in SOTA sound, performed by by musicians who revere Ellington’s style and have the chops to execute the music as it was intended.  This recording along and the 1943 concert bookend the other less important recordings.

There are two other quasi complete recordings, one an orchestral version released on Naxos (2013) and one by the Claude Bolling Jazz Orchestra (1990) – but both of these have interpretive problems.

BBB 4The Naxos recording by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra led by JoAnn Falletta is edited down to about 18 minutes from the 45 minute work and presents the music in a strait-laced performance by an orchestra that ignores the jazz nature of the work.  This recording is valuable for the inclusion of three of Ellington’s other long form works, Harlem, Three Black Kings and The River Suite (arr. R. Collier for orchestra), which I do not think appear on any other recordings.  But I take these performances with a grain of salt since the ensemble is attempting to play them in a fashion unintended, and probably undesired, by Ellington.
While Claude Bolling‘s group is made up of jazz players, and it constitutes a noble effort, Bolling’s recording was nullified by the release of the work by the JALC band.

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