The Duke Ellington tributes have gotten started well before Duke had died in 1974 and continued on seemingly non-stop. So why the heck should anyone pay attention to the latest one, by the Matthew Shipp Trio? The answer lies in the question.
Matthew Shipp is a rarity among jazz musicians today — even amongst the avant-garde — who seems incapable of tackling any musical subject by going down a path that someone else has blazed. Especially when the subject for his newest release To Duke, from the France-based RogueArt label, is one of the largest looming figures in jazz, Duke Ellington.
It’s a tall task, surely, to give a proper tribute to one of the top two or three most essential figures in this great, African-American music form, but there’s never a sense that Matthew Shipp and the other members of his trio Michael Bisio (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums) approach this with any trepidation or careful study. Instead, they immerse themselves in Ellington’s songs with the same carefree zeal undertaken with Shipp’s own tunes, which is easy to discern because some fresh Shipp originals are found side by side with these inventive covers.
There’s a fine line of staying true to the root character of a song while making something truly beguilingly unique with it. Shipp accomplishes this balancing act, mainly by paying fealty to the core beauty of these melodies while allowing himself liberties with everything else. For “In A Sentimental Mood,” heard in the exclusive stream above, he plays the chords ‘straight’ but the unsettled rhythm section is only loosely tethered to him, and the uneasy tension they create is seemingly at odds with the pianist. However, Shipp uncovers a dark alter ego of melody that he revisits a time or two that moves him closer to the sentiment of his bandmates.
Even more chances are taken on “Satin Doll,” where Matthew Shipp plays the universally-known melody without regard for pacing, then without warning goes down side alleys before abruptly returning to the theme of the song again as Dickey and Bisio adjust in real time to his every whim. For “Take The A Train” Shipp signs on with the familiar intro figure and quickly gives much of the floor to Bisio, who offers up his own frenetic interpretation of the melody and then swings with Shipp. Shipp leaps off the abyss with the Bisio/Dickey unit already halfway there, rapidly going through the revolving door between inside and outside, but never completely losing touch with the harmony.
Bisio serves up a poetic performance all alone with a interpretation of “I’ve Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” that is technically astonishing while covering a wide range of emotions that goes beyond the doleful one heard on other renditions. Dickey’s spotlight comes within the Shipp-composed “Dickey Duke,” which is a tribute to the soon-to-be-departing drummer as much as to Ellington. Dickey rummages thunderously around Matthew Shipp’s riff, erecting an unrelenting wall of cymbals, toms and snare. Shipp himself puts in a solo performance, “Prelude To A Kiss,” which strays very little off course, and sharply contrasts with, say, McCoy Tyner’s muscular, chops-centric approach to the same song. Instead, Shipp is only concerned with illuminating a gorgeous melody with a gently flowing movement.
Aside from “Dickey Duke,” Shipp’s originals bear more of the character of its composer than to Duke; “Tone Poem For Duke,” for instance, is a mysterious, dark, evolving melody. “Sparks” has a big band swing to it that does connect it to Ellington, but Dickey’s stormy revolt on the drums adds that subversive element that he’s put into many of the Ellington songs, too.
Truth be told, there’s a subversive current that runs throughout all of To Duke that rebels a bit against the elegance of these Duke Ellington strains, but that elegance always wins out. Still, the battles between two these sides cleverly set up by the Matthew Shipp Trio is where all of the allure and artistry of To Duke lie.