The best of Duke Ellington: Five albums from a jazz royal

I’ve always said that Duke Ellington is the “Boardwalk” in the (fictional) game of Jazzopoly. He’s the top of the line, the most noble of jazz royalty.

While Ellington released more jazz recordings than just about anyone, he often preferred to call his music “beyond category.” He felt that labelling his music strictly “jazz” would do a disservice to his embrace of folk, world and classical styles in his many compositions and suites. A generous collaborator, he loved his songwriting partners — namely Billy Strayhorn and Juan Tizol — and would tailor his arrangements to showcase the many talents of his band mates.

Between his first charting single East St. Louis Toodle-Oo in 1927 and his final recorded concert Eastbourne Performance in 1973 (posthumously released two years later), Duke managed to release more than 200 albums along with countless singles.

Out of that fantastically lengthy library of music, here are five albums that will give you perhaps the best idea of how influential and important Duke Ellington was and remains to this day.

A Duke Ellington Panorama (1943)

Duke released a ton of singles with almost every record label during his first decade in music. This is a collection of some of those early singles — my favourite being The Mooche. It’s not my favourite album by a long stretch, but it’s unquestionably instrumental in showing listeners where it all started.

Masterpieces by Ellington (1951)

Now that you’ve heard his original sound, why not move on and check out some of his biggest hits? Ellington’s first LP is loaded with Solitude, Sophisticated Lady and a phenomenal version of Mood Indigo. Because it was a 12-inch record — one of the earliest, at that — Duke was able to take advantage of the runtime and stretch out the tunes to the 11-minute mark and beyond.

Money Jungle (1962)

This record reveals how fascinating Duke could sound with a trio rather than a big band. When you’ve got Charlie Mingus and Max Roach in your sandbox, you’re bound to strike gold. Their styles were very different — a source of criticism among some commentators — but most of the time, it really works. The record features six of Ellington’s original compositions and an especially interesting recording of Juan Tizol’s Caravan. The musicians’ freedom of individual expression on Money Jungle has made it a highly influential record for hundreds of musicians.

The Far East Suite (1967)

In 1963, Duke embarked on a world tour that took him far from home to Syria, India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. He didn’t actually get to the “Far East” — though he did tour Japan the following year — but his travels nonetheless inspired him to compose the Grammy-winning record The Far East Suite. It will blow away anyone who thinks Duke is only about the “‘A’ Train.” The song Isfahan remains one of my all-time favourites, but for those who want to get groovy, you won’t get better than Blue Pepper.

The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1975)

Finally, one of Ellington’s final records, recorded in 1971, is among his best. It’s imperative to listen to this bizarre and beautiful journey from beginning to end. The vocal introduction to this album is highly witty and entertaining, and the ensuing music reaffirms Duke’s standing as the best bandleader of his day.