If you have never heard of Duke Ellington, you may need to expand your musical horizons a bit. Wikipedia has it right by labeling him as "one of the greatest figures in the history of jazz". This album displays not only his chops as a composer and band leader, but also the charisma that he and his big band brought to a live performance. This album was recorded during Duke Ellington's revival into public view and what a welcome back this must have been for Ellington and his band.
The album begins with the Star Spangled Banner (of all things) played by Ellington's big band, and to be quite honest, it was nothing fancy. From there on out though, the mood really changes. After a few moderate tunes, the band really picks up the pace. The trumpet soloist on most of the album is Cat Anderson, and my goodness can he play. Not only was he a great straight ahead player, but he really knew how to squeal! On this note I do want to mention that the mixing on this album is not the best. Granted, it is a live recording and who knows what type of recording setup they had going, but there are times where the trumpet is so loud that the rest of the band is inaudible! Also, during the vocal numbers you can barely hear the singer which almost defeats the purpose of including them on the album. On the other hand, most people who are listening to this live show could probably care less about vocals and would probably rather hear all the nuances and technical mastery that Ellington's band displays in each and every tune.
The pure standout for me on this album was the tune Diminuendo In Blue which was as boisterous and exciting as big band playing can get. One of the endearing aspects of this album is that you can hear the crowd yelling with pleasure and affirmation during each of the solos on the album (of which there are many). However on this tune in particular the crowd becomes so carried away that the track following Diminuendo In Blue is called "Pandemonium" which is basically the crowd screaming for more while Ellington tries to calm them down. This made the album fun to listen to and it really felt like I was right there. I couldn't help but wonder what a fun time every one must have had, both in the crowd and on the stage.
Verdict: So, should you listen to this album before you die? Most definitely. Will you enjoy the whole thing? Maybe, maybe not. For jazz heads this is a must. However, I consider myself to be a jazz lover and even I can grow a little weary when each tune is 6-8 and sometimes 14 minutes long! Listen to Skin Deep without a drummer's mindset and your ADD may just kick into high gear. This is classic big band jazz that needs to be heard by everyone. The only issues that I have are in regards to the overall mix of the album and that it may not be accessible to everyone. However it still should be listened to for the historical reference and for the enjoyment of listening to some truly incredible musicians that deserve to be heard.