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Matthew Shipp Trio: To Duke

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Matthew Shipp has tackled standards before. The thunderous, iconoclastic pianist has for years pounded out the likes of “Autumn Leaves,” “Summertime” and “Tenderly,” as well as some of Duke Ellington’s songs, beating them so that they conform to his own aggressive conventions. Now he has devoted an entire album to jazz’s greatest composer. Performed with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, To Duke features seven of Duke Ellington’s (and writing partner Billy Strayhorn’s) most recognizable tunes, with a few originals thrown in.

In Shipp’s restless hands, these songs are equally recognizable as his, too. Shipp has one of the most distinctive styles of any pianist ever to touch a keyboard-from his phrasing and harmonic ideas to his preference for thick, lower-register chords-and it all comes through here. “Satin Doll” is one of Ellington/Strayhorn’s prettiest tunes, but Shipp turns it spiky and violent, with circular, contrapuntal chords serving as rebuttals to the happy melody. “Take the ‘A’ Train” starts much as Ellington played it-with that familiar, crystalline phrase-but Bisio’s frantic plucking and Dickey’s scampering, anti-rhythmic drumming quickly take over. Shipp gets drawn into the miasma, weaving snippets of the melody between booming chords and full-tilt runs.

“Solitude,” likewise, alternates between melodic passages and ominous tangents. The trio gives “Mood Indigo” an almost reverential treatment-Shipp and Bisio are in ballad mode-but Dickey is deliberately at odds with them, playing much faster and without regard for time. Even so, the song nearly swings. “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” is the one completely unrecognizable number. It’s a five-minute bass solo that draws more from Charles Mingus than Ellington-it contains an extended quote from “Haitian Fight Song,” in fact-but it is riveting nonetheless, like the rest of To Duke.

Originally Published