Times were tough for Ellington and his band in the early 50s, big bands were hardly en vogue anymore and keeping his guys on the payroll was not always easy. After Ellington’s relationship with Columbia ended, Capitol came along and offered him a recording contract with the stipulation that he record the same crowd pleasing classics that he played at his ongoing dance gigs. I’m sure the Duke would have preferred to write new material and create something a little more ambitious, but a chance to record and sell another album was a way to keep his band afloat. With this work order intact, Ellington’s band entered the studio to make “Ellington 55”, a look at the past in one respect, but recorded for a fairly new modern format, the LP. This relatively new long play medium allowed Duke to record these tunes in far lengthier jams than they had been recorded previously.
All of the tunes on here are well worn classics, most written by Ellington, but some written by Basie, Goodman and others. The versions on here can be quite different from these tunes’ original recordings, especially the older ones. Everything on here is bright, bold and huge sounding. Modern recording techniques were coming into their own at this point and Ellington’s band never sounded so strong. If you prefer the charming sound of Ellington’s earliest material, than this version of Ellington's band is like a sledge hammer in contrast, not that they can’t be smooth and subtle, they most definitely can, but when the full ensemble comes on, it’s a whole new thing.
Some of these cuts really rock, particularly “Flying Home” and “Rockin in Rhythm”. “Honeysuckle Rose” has a nice groove and mixes in some arranged quotes from Parker’s “Scrapple”, Duke’s generous tribute to the bebop that knocked him out of the limelight. “Happy Go Lucky Local” has some dissonant piano passages and murky horn arrangements that sound a lot like what Charles Mingus was starting to play around with at the time. Most of the tunes on here are good, but some are almost too wore out. Ellington’s crew do their best to make Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” a little more funky, but that is probably the most over played riff in the history of dance music.
Its too bad Capitol didn’t offer Ellington the cash to make something new, but they didn’t. Kudos to the Duke for making the best of the situation and putting out a strong energetic creative album, not a tired look at the past. The entire band on here is excellent, no other band in history can move as one like this and the solos are over the top with personality and humor. Top band honors though go to Cat Anderson and his screaming trumpet that always comes flying in when the arrangements hit a chaotic peak, if you turn this stuff up loud enough, he’ll certainly knock the wax out of your ears.