In the '30s, Ellington
started recording prolifically with small groups taken from his big band. It gave him an opportunity to both debut new works and to let his sidemen stretch out and act as leaders once in awhile (under his direction). This two-disc set contains 45 recordings, almost all of them brilliant, including sessions ostensibly under the leadership of cornetist Rex Stewart
(including two selections cut before he joined Ellington
), clarinetist Barney Bigard
, trumpeter Cootie Williams
, and altoist Johnny Hodges
. In addition to early versions of such future standards as "Caravan," "Stompy Jones," and "Echoes of Harlem," there are many hot stomps performed that feature strong solos from these very distinctive stylists. Brilliant music, highly recommended.