It seems the inevitable Duke Ellington tribute album has become a rite of passage for major jazz performers, so it comes as no big surprise that one of today’s top musicians, Matthew Shipp, has taken on the formidable task of re-interpreting the works of the master on Shipp’s new CD, “To Duke”. Shipp is a fairly diverse and unpredictable artist, so there was no telling which way he was going to take Duke’s music. Would he go totally avant-garde on the pieces, or would he stay somewhat within Duke’s musical language? The answer to both questions is yes as Shipp treats some of the songs to free wheeling de-construction and radical re-make, while others sound fairly close to the original. It’s this varied approach that makes “To Duke” a total success as both a tribute to Duke, as well as an expansion of his music.
The first thing that might hit you about this CD is the song choices. Common knowledge would expect Shipp to pick out interesting obscurities and some of Duke’s more harmonically complex pieces, but instead, Shipp picked the most common and over played songs in the Duke songbook. “Satin Doll”, “Take the A Train”, “Mood Indigo” etc, it reads like one more budget label “The Best of the Duke’s Greatest Hits” type albums. Is this Matthew’s sense of humor at work? Maybe, but possibly they just happen to be his favorites songs to play, or possibly those song’s familiarity made them a bigger challenge to re-interpret. If that is the case, then Shipp and his band-mates meet the challenge with unpredictable approaches and unbridled creativity.
The most radical re-makes take place on “Satin Doll” and “A Train”, as the band takes some of the basic riffs to launch furious assaults that can be very intense at times, and funny as hell other times. Shipp is one of the few performers in today’s jazz world who realizes that much of the great jazz in the past always had a sly wit. Elsewhere on this CD, “Mood Indigo” and “Prelude to a Kiss” stay close to the originals as Shipp expands on their lush harmonies. There are also a couple Shipp originals, with “Sparks” being an excellent high energy avant-bop number.
The person who might have appreciated these pieces the most is, of course, no longer with us. Duke did not care to have his music become museum pieces. His band rarely played songs the same way twice, and re-recordings of songs always featured new arrangements. He also did not like any attempt to write down a definitive arrangement of any of his pieces. Duke preferred that his music continue to grow and change, much like it does on "To Duke".