Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges: Back To Back

Bandleader Ellington proves himself a capable blues pianist on small-group recordings of early blues tunes, mostly by W.C. Handy

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It was often said that the instrument Ellington played best was his orchestra but as this six-piece combo LP – here reissued on vinyl – shows, he was a strong blues soloist on piano. Here he teams up with one of his favourite sidemen on alto saxophone, in a programme of early blues compositions.

Curiously, the rhythm section is not one from the Ellington orchestra but features guitarist Spann, who was with Dizzy Gillespie at the time, all-round bassist Sam Jones and Count Basie’s former master percussionist, Jo Jones.

The set kicks off with Wabash Blues, where Hodges introduces the theme in his warm, lyrical manner and takes the first solo. Hodges is quietly, effectively inventive although the most arresting solo here is by trumpeter Harry Edison, a refugee from the Basie band. Finally, Ellington’s relaxed, blues chords take centre stage.

Next up is Basin Street, perhaps the most famous of all jazz-blues compositions and here again it is Edison who plays the melody and takes a strong solo on trumpet almost before the others have warmed up. Spann contributes a boppish guitar solo before Hodges plays a long-lined sequence in his inimitable style. Ellington is again completely laid back and very effective as a piano soloist.

As the sleeve notes point out, Ellington was a gifted and original soloist who was seldom heard in solo as he was always busy promoting his orchestra and the various soloists within it. Here, then, is a good opportunity to hear Duke as piano soloist and he certainly impresses on these early, mainly W.C Handy blues lines. Although they might seem unlikely partners at first glance, Spann, Edison and the two Jones boys give first-class support throughout. Hodges was his usual self on alto which means he was as good as always in a jazz and blues setting.

Discography
Wabash Blues; Basin Street Blues; Beale Street Blues; Villes Ville Is The Place, Man; Weary Blues; St. Louis Blues; Loveless Love; Royal Garden Blues (49.57)
Ellington (p); Hodges (as); Harry “Sweets” Edison (t); Les Spann (elg); Sam Jones (b); Jo Jones (d). NYC, 20 February 1959.
Waxtime 772341