On August 18, 1962, The Duke Ellington Octet featuring Coleman Hawkins were in a New York recording studio, busy making an album for the Impulse! label. Impulse! was still a relatively new imprint at the time, having issued its first four albums in early 1961. Joining Ellington and Hawk were Ray Nance (cornet, violin), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Aaron Bell (bass), and Sam Woodyard (drums). The result was Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, an album the New York Times described as “one of the great Ellington albums, one of the great Hawkins albums, and one of the great albums of the 1960s.”
Hawk had been an admirer of Duke for well over 30 years by this time, but this was the first (and only) time that the two giants actually recorded together. It’s a record made up of old songs and new songs. The new songs were written by Ellington, with two of them penned by his bandleader and long-time saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
Of the Ellington/Hodges compositions, “Wanderlust” is one of the highlights of the record – bluesy jazz at its very best. Ray Nance, in particular, shines. The wonderfully exuberant “The Jeep is Jumpin,” full of fabulous flourishes and flair is another standout.
“Self Portrait (of the Bean),” referencing one of Hawkins’s nicknames, is sublime mellow jazz. The album closes with a standard, the gorgeous “Solitude,” which opens with Nance’s lovely violin. In just under six minutes, you’ll understand the sheer beauty of jazz.
And then there’s the brilliance of Duke Ellington himself. He’s been called the Renaissance Man of jazz, and while this album doesn’t stray much from what the composer and bandleader does best, it should not be overlooked. The New York Times was right.
Released in January 1963, Billboard gave Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins “Special Merit” status in its review section, saying, “Here’s one for collectors. It’s a brand new recording by Duke surrounded by king-size sidemen, playing with the indefatigable Hawk.” All true, and then some.