My quick search reveals 37 instrumental album tributes to Duke Ellington, 12 by pianists—from Billy Byers to Oscar Peterson to Abdullah Ibrahim to Tommy Flanagan to Monty Alexander, to the most recent by Matthew Shipp.
Shipp with trio-mates Michael Basio (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums) pay homage to the maestro by offering four original dedications and seven familiar classics: “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Take the A-Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “Solitude.”
Shipp has a somewhat difficult-to-categorize playing style all his own, at least for me, so I won’t try, except to say others have hung a free jazz label on it, reminding them of Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill or Thelonious Monk, or Vejay Iyer at times. Nonetheless, he has recorded a credible album (with some reservations) dedicated to the music of one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.
Personally, and I hate writing this, I wish Shipp had dropped the originals and given us his take on other ducal masterpieces and, more importantly, recorded them solo (as he in fact did with “Prelude”), asking his rhythm mates to take the day off. The busy, bass/drum chatterbox underneath Shipp’s keyboard explorations interfered with my listening at times.
In general, tempos are taken a mite faster than the originals, and the two “Mood” pieces—“Sentimental” and “Indigo”—are more “red” than “blue.”
“A-Train” and “Doll” are both up and at times manage to swing. The pianist’s treatment of “Doll” should bring a smile to most faces; the familiar melody is always recognizable, though not always fully stated: imagine the “Doll” lyrics with several syllables left out: “Out . . . in’ / My Sa . . . Doll.”
Further imagine this head-wagging toe-tapper being played by a Bavarian marching band, or some such. That’s how it ends. I would venture Duke, from his lofty perch on high, would be chuckling and nodding, especially at Shipp’s somewhat bombastic use of the lower 88. As would McCoy Tyner. As would Cecil Taylor.
Mr. Shipp’s solo rendition of “Prelude” joins the many other outstanding keyboard tributes to Duke’s lovely ballad.
Recommended for its engaging interpretations of the classics, To Duke bears repeated play for best appreciation. Should the avant pianist decide to record a follow-up album of nothing but Ellington tunes (there are numerous others to choose from) without accompaniment, then sign me up.