Recording of May 2000: Duke Elegant

DR. JOHN: Duke Elegant
Blue Note 5 23220 2 (CD). 2000. Mac Rebennack, prod.; Suz Dyer, eng.; Steve Revitte, Tovi Rodriguez, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 66:40
Performance ****?
Sonics ****?

For those who complain that there aren't many interesting records out there, here's a disc to savor. The world's finest living New Orleans piano professor, clean and sober and ready to focus, meets one of America's finest composers, a man and pianist whose memory was fêted throughout 1999—the centennial of his birth—with an avalanche of reissues and previously unreleased tidbits.

Of all the Ellington music released or reissued in the past year, Mac Rebennack's salute is easily the most original. The big difference lies in the arrangements: Even a familiar Ellington standard like "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" is transformed into a sly, slow, funky workout in which a post-chorus bit of scatting by the old night-tripper himself—"Cho-wha, cho-wha, cho-wha—boogie now!"—sounds as if it might have been part of the tune all along.

A deeply funkified Ellington is bound to offend a certain amount of his fans, purist or otherwise. John Atkinson shot me a skeptical sideways glance when I asked him to give this a listen, but within days he'd become this disc's champion, and rode roughshod over my attempts to choose something else. He did insist that I add a proviso stating that, as a former practicing musician, he's become thoroughly sick of "Satin Doll," which he had to play umpteen thousands of times and will not be the worse for if he never hears again.

In some ways, being tired of the known versions of Ellington gets right to the heart of this project—Duke Elegant is Ellington as you've never heard him or are likely to again. Take "Perdido": Opening with a B-3 organ vamp, the tune becomes an almost Maceo Parker-like lite-funk groove, with saxman Ronnie Cuber (on baritone here, though it's not credited) alternating solo space with Mac's organ. Some George Bensonesque guitar licks by Bobby Broom also find a few bars to shine. While this familiar Ellington composition is rendered nearly unrecognizable, the arrangement is not offensive or, more important, in opposition to the spirit of the piece. One listen to this sprightly gem and you gotta feel that its creator, who pushed the envelope himself and respected ideas that stretched music and musicians alike, would have approved.

The adventurous approach informs almost every tune here. Courtesy of a funky little New Orleans piano figure that anchors the entire arrangement, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" becomes a shake-your-tailfeathers funk strut. Mercer Ellington's "Thing's Ain't What They Used To Be" is another B-3 funk fest, this time sans vocals. Though most of Mac's arrangements feature a sextet, any fan of jazz-funk organ trios à la Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff will adore this disc. As a B-3 funkateer, Mac's got the chops to rank with the legendary masters of the instrument.

Proceeding deeper into Duke Elegant, it becomes increasingly difficult to suppress wide smiles and head-shakes, as you realize that few could think this up, let alone execute it with as much élan and good fun as Mac brings to the project. He is a truly talented, one-of-a-kind player, bandleader, and musical idea man.

For those who, like JA, suffer from "Satin Doll" overload, the tune's arrangement here is not wildly different from the original, and is probably best skipped over. For the unsaturated, it's a solid if unspectacular rendition that, given its popularity in the Ellington songbook, was probably inevitable.

"Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me" may be the one time on Duke Elegant that Mac's own most common, mid-tempo, keyboards-and-voice style takes over entirely—but happily he remains a hugely powerful performer in this mode, so why not? Mac is placed in the middle of the mix, forward and louder than the rest. But the spacing between instruments is generally good, with the prominent bottom you'd expect, but without sacrificing the high-hat echoes or the evocative B-3's long sustain.

In a 12-month period when OD'ing on Ellington was not only possible but almost assured, this sparkling set is a much needed and refreshing change of pace. Maybe now someone will do the same for this year's 100th-birthday boy, Louis Armstrong.—Robert Baird