Updating any composer’s work for a modern audience can be a tricky proposition, requiring equal parts ability, love, and chutzpah. This goes double when you’re treading on the sacred ground of one of the most influential figures of American music: the legacy of Duke Ellington.
Pianist and composer Graham Reynolds does showcase all three of those necessary elements – he’s a fantastic player that adds a muscular edge to the rich tones he pulls out of his instrument, someone who knows these Ellington songs inside and out, and has proved himself capable of stretching all manner of sonic boundaries through his scores for theater and film, and in his own often stunning work leading his Golden Arm Trio.
Being a three-tool player in the art of a tribute album, though, means you risk trying to shoehorn in too many ideas into one pocket. Unfortunately, for all its moments of clarity and the impish pleasures it doles out, Duke! falls prey to excess.
The three portraits that the subtitle promises are broken up sonically and thematically. He starts by paying homage to the original articles by playing them with a tightly wound combo featuring piano, drums, bass, sax, and trombone. In the second section, the songs are reconfigured as modern classical and played by a string quartet. Reynolds rounds the album out by handing the aforementioned tracks over to remixers (including DJ Spooky and Okkervil River’s Justin Sherburn) who take sometimes great, sometimes curious liberties with the recordings.
Reynolds’ thinking behind this tribute makes sense, giving you the original, as intended melodies and leaving you to dig out where they land in the modern interpretations. But listening to the album in one go is a taxing endeavor, particularly when it starts off with the blast of energy that is the full band versions. The opening tracks conjure up visions of Duke’s Jungle Band hopped up on Four Loko: all tireless energy with a slight wobbliness that threatens to fly off the rails at any moment. “It Don’t Mean A Thing” rumbles with an almost threatening air thanks to some low slung baritone sax playing and the heavy tom-tom work by drummer Jeremy Bruch. “Cotton Tail” is a relentless bit of slapstick that could soundtrack a particularly manic Warner Bros. cartoon. The only time it slows down initially is to allow Reynolds a moment to shine on a majestic version of “Heaven”.
Transitioning from all that bombast to the quiet strains of a string quartet is a hard move to make, though. And it diminishes some otherwise lovely work by Reynolds, configuring the songs in an experimental setting. The compositions come and go quickly, but stretch out Ellington’s familiar melodies into long, luscious lines (the best is a downright gorgeous expansion of the bouncy swoop of “Caravan”).
And once you’re finally settled into the mindset of the second third, the mood shifts again with the sound of chintzy keyboards and Latin beat courtesy of Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada. The remix of “Heaven” (the String Abstraction version) leads the mishmash of approaches taken by this handpicked gang of producers and performers. The remixers add loping hip-hop beats here, chop and screw samples of the original tracks there, or just overlay pieces with reverb and echo. It’s decent enough stuff, but nothing that would tend to make anyone go diving back to the original tracks to study the differences.
It’s a lot to pack into an hour of CD time, but by doing so, Reynolds says a great deal about his trust in the brains of his fans and those of Ellington. The best way to really appreciate the richness of Reynolds’ work, though, is to take each portrait individually, leaving aside the other two for future listening.