BOSTON — Beyond category" was how biographer John Hasse describes composer and musician Duke Ellington. This centennial year of Mr. Ellington's birth serves as a powerful reminder of just how breathtakingly multidimensional his legacy is.
Although many of Ellington's best-loved compositions, "Take the A Train" and "Caravan," for example, are appreciated as jazz standards, Ellington avoided using the term "jazz" to describe his style.
He felt the word was too limiting to accurately describe his restless musical experimentation, which drew upon gospel, blues, world/folk, and classical music.
This perspective is supported by the music in The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (RCA Victor). This imposing 24-CD set features previously unreleased performances. It is a lavishly produced compilation that offers a priceless glimpse into the evolution of Ellington's art.
Central to Ellington's music was his progression from a composer of jazz for dancing and nightclub frivolity to a composer dedicated to the expression of African-American spirituality.
He viewed his "sacred concerts," presented together for the first time here, as his crowning achievement. Rather than jazzing up traditional liturgical melodies, Ellington chose to compose original oratorios, filled with richly witty text of his invention.
His splendid saxophonists brought the gospel home through stirring solos. Numerous star vocalists made cameo appearances, along with a tap dancer for a song celebrating King David's dance before the ark of the covenant.
International travel also played a part in Ellington's growth. "The Far East Suite," reflecting the experiences of Ellington and his band members in the Near and Far East, is just one jewel in this recorded retrospective. Tunes like "Isfahan" and "Tourist Point of View" are a showcase for the lyrically sensual playing of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. They capture images of exotic birds, open-air market conversations, and folk dancers in the streets.
Ellington felt that his Eastern travels brought him to a place where he saw everything as poetry. While jazz rhythms are evident throughout the "Suite," there are tone colors and harmonies unidentified with traditional jazz and more resonant with the musical style called World Beat.
Perhaps the greatest insight into Ellington's half-century career comes from the Duke's son, Mercer Ellington, who wrote: "He was always very conscious of the need to make the listener feel experiences with the sound, almost as though he was creating apparitions within the music."
The variety of evocative apparitions grew by leaps and bounds as Ellington matured. Listen to the first disc in the box with eyes closed and you're likely to imagine Harlem in the roaring '20s. The tunes from the '40s, with their blending of folk and gospel as well as urban blues, suggest contrasting images of the pastoral South and the burgeoning industrial North.
The music of his final decade evokes images of prayer and thanksgiving in churches. Listen to the entire centennial edition - a monumental undertaking requiring more than 24 hours - and you'll be rewarded with a sense of experiencing the key cultural themes of America during the 20th century.
My own marathon listening to the boxed set brought one idea home: Ellington's entire career was an experiment in being true to his art. "I don't want anyone to challenge my right to sound completely mad, to screech like a wild man, to create the mauve melody of a simpering idiot, or to write a song that praises God," he said. "I only want what any other American artist wants, and that is freedom of expression."
The fruits of that quest are offered here. For those who find the size and cost (list price: $407, look for discounts) daunting, a single CD is available that samples high points of this impossible-to-categorize career.