The sound of Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone--a tone of ethereal smoothness combined with slyly familiar blues phrasing and a capacity for both wit and romance--may be the most identifiable sonic marker of Duke Ellington's music, and it's much in evidence on the two small group sessions on this album. One, from 1959, has Hodges and Ellington in a sextet with two great Basie alumni, drummer Jo Jones and trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison.
The combination generates extraordinary swing, especially on the opening "Stompy Jones," with Ellington's percussive chords and Jones's drums generating enough power to drive a big band. Hodges and Edison maintain the big-band illusion, fueling one another's solos with supportive riffs, while Ellington seems to revel in the wide-open spaces, soloing on "Going Up" with an expansive and almost casual brilliance.
Though Duke is absent from the second date on this album, featuring a septet recorded in 1958, his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, plays piano in appropriately ducal fashion. This band has an even stronger Ellington flavor, with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and trombonist Lawrence Brown adding their unique sounds to a joy-filled session that recalls Duke's small group recordings of the '30s. --Stuart Broomer (Amazon)
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