If there is one album where you definitely want to get the complete CD re-issue, “Ellington at Newport” is the one. The difference between this 1999 CD and the original LP from the late 50s is all the difference in the world. The story about this famous 1956 concert and its original recording mishaps has been told many times, so I will make this brief. Ellington’s performance at Newport in 56 was a smash success that turned around his lagging career and inspired so much enthusiasm that the concert almost ended in a riot of sorts. Eager to get a recording of this concert out to the public, Ellington discovered that the concert recording was marred by sloppy playing, and even worse, key solos had been played into the wrong microphones and barely recorded at all. Quickly Ellington pulled together another rehearsal and had the entire concert re-recorded fresh in the studio, except for the one piece that had gotten the crowd to its feet, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”. That one piece had featured a lengthy solo by Paul Gonsalves that Ellington wanted to preserve as is, even though you could barely hear Gonsalves at times because he was pointed towards the wrong mic.
When “Ellington at Newport” hit the shelves in 57, everyone assumed that was an actual recording of the Duke’s big comeback and the story could have ended there, but many decades later, someone miraculously discovered the tapes picked up by the “wrong microphone” (it was for a taping to be played over seas), all of a sudden the original concert was back again. To say this was one of the biggest musicological finds of the 20th century is practically an understatement. Next came the painstaking task of matching the various tapes together, but new developments in digital technology finally allowed the entire concert to be released in fairly good sounding stereo.
So in 1999 the complete “Ellington at Newport” was released with the entire 56 concert intact, as well as Ellington’s studio remake of the concert that had been the original album. Its fun to compare the two versions, the studio recording is tighter and more polished, but the live recording has so much energy and raw enthusiasm. Some sloppiness in the live recording is pretty bad, such as Johnny Hodges mangled opening note glide on “I Got it Bad”, but overall, I find the live recordings to have more life than the studio ones.
A special brand new three part Newport Suite was supposed to be Ellington’s show stopper at this performance, but despite some great music, it didn’t really grab the audience. Desperate to connect with the crowd and sensing he might not get another shot at a comeback, the Duke started pulling out some old favorites and when the band hit a lengthy blues groove that was the interlude between “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue”, the audience went crazy. During this lengthy workout, saxophonist Paul Gonsalves laid down an old-school bluesy solo that became one of the most famous solos in jazz history. Its not a particularly flashy solo, in fact Gonsalves solos during the Newport Suite are much better, but the band hit a groove that really grabbed the crowd. Much of the credit for this should go to new drummer Sam Woodyard and his feel for the new rock-n-roll back beat, and therein lay the key to Duke’s success that evening. It wasn’t about flashy music or powerhouse solos, it was about an irresistible beat and a band that fell into a communal groove with the audience with everyone slapping that backbeat together, shouting out encouragement and dancing in the aisle.
At the end of “Blue” you can hear the pandemonium, the audience is yelling at the stage while Ellington and the promoter are arguing about how to handle the crowd. The Duke wants to keep the encores coming, but the promoter wants to wrap things up. Four encores are eventually played and in between each one you can hear some very heated exchanges, its all very fascinating. Its hard to be objective when rating this album, sure there is some great music on here, particularly the three part suite, but more importantly, this is one of the most famous concerts in jazz history and the fact that it was considered lost for so long makes it no less than a miracle.