Mysterious, provocative, fanciful — all the key attributes often ascribed to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn — are vividly present on this inaugural release by trumpeter Cuong Vu and pianist Richard Karpen’s Indigo Mist project That The Days Go By And Never Come Again. Yet, it could hardly sound more foreign to those accustomed to hearing the classic stylings of the fabled bandleader and his key songwriting partner.
That’s also exactly the draw of this latest in an endless procession of Ellington/Strayhorn tributes that’s like no other.
Actually, Ellington and Strayhorn became the meeting place for the restless improviser Vu and the scholar and classically-inclined Karpen, who both recognize that the legendary duo had together and separately pursued innovations in harmonics. Vu and Karpen take that cue by pushing against boundaries themselves for this day and age. And in this day and age, that often involves technology; Karpen is an electro-acoustic pioneer and Vu isn’t exactly new to the stuff, either. To that end, they brought in a quartet of live electronics performers who create the background sonic aesthetics from their iPads.
Only four of these ten compositions were actually composed by Duke or Billy; the rest were inspired by them. That’s hard to detect on the surface when the opening track “L’Heure Bleue” is a startling, five minute technologically enhanced tour de force by drummer Ted Poor. But you can locate Duke in the jungle rhythms he invokes and the rat-a-tat of his tom toms that could have found a place in the Ellington orchestra.
Poor settles into a low rumble by the time we’re onto the next cut “Indigo Mist,” and the first, minimal voices of Karpen’s piano are finally heard nearly three minutes later, followed by the equally subdued but dark Vu, whose trumpet mimics a distant howling wind. Discreetly, with some electro help, the waves of sound get louder, creepier and more insistent. And just like that, it fritters away just enough so that Vu’s fragile strains of Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” can be detected. It’s a short visit to that melody as the focus moves away from Vu to his partner Karpen, who puts an avant twist to classical piano expressions and reinforced by Luke Berman’s bass on an original piece named simply, “Billy.”
“Billy” is followed by, yes, “Duke,” which is another pairing, this time of Vu sounding MIles-like with the loose, almost Big Easy swing of Poor. The other two ease their way in and improvise right along with Vu but Poor maintains an anchor until eventually he finally succumbs to the spirit, too. Divine temerity.
The second cover appears just as the first one did: as a moment of peaceful beauty immediately following dissonant turmoil. Vu’s abstract reading of “In A sentimental Mood” still retains the essence of the song as earnestly as Karpen might try to pull him toward the abyss during a segue entitled “Charles,” and without a break in the vibe, Vu recites the introductory figure to Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” ignoring the divergent path the rest of the band had chosen as he briefly moves into the next figure of the song.
“The Electric Mist” is all-out, two-fisted freedom for Karpen, who is soon overtaken by the demons of the iPads. The final track is the only one that appears to stand alone as a discreet performance. Duke’s “Mood Indigo” is presented in a very spare manner by Karpen, and even more barren by Vu. Splashes of drums and electronics dance around his trumpet, acting like the ghosts of the two late masters making their presence felt.
“Duke and Billy were always in the room with us and we had to come to terms with their presence,” acknowledges Vu. “I feel that we’ve respectfully paid homage to them by taking our own connection to them and sprinkled that all over the record like a mist.” By abstracting the music and style of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn far from their roots, Cuong Vu and Richard Karpen actually brought the spirit of those two closer to us. That’s the real accomplishment of this album.
That The Days Go By And Never Come Again is due out August 7, 2014, by Rare Noise Records.