When a listener approaches a tribute project that promises to twist around some long-revered works, it’s probably best to understand that no one is above criticism. Not the Beatles, not Beethoven, not Bartok, not Basie. If things were absolutely perfect, we would feel guilty for messing around with them. And if we don’t mess around with perceivably perfect things once in a while, we miss out on some fun—or even another dimension of art. Okay, it’s a stretch to say that Graham Reynolds and the Golden Arm Trio have branched off into another dimension of art on Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington, but ignoring superlatives altogether just wouldn’t be right. For you see, even if Reynolds’s nods to Duke may not be considered 100% innovative for the year 2011, it’s still something stunning to behold.
In all honesty, I did not peg Graham Reynolds as one to retread on a golden oldie. His original works with the Golden Arm Trio have been just that—original. Startlingly so, especially his ballet score Cult of Color, which effectively blurred the lines between classicist and contemporary. His score for the Richard Linklater adaption of Philip Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was even more brooding, perfectly matching the moody paranoia on screen with tense string arrangements. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Reynolds would naturally do Ellington homages in his own idiosyncratic way, which is what we pay the guy for.
Performing Duke Ellington pieces live began as one-off exercise to loosen up and have fun for the Golden Arm Trio. Not willing to leave well enough alone, Reynolds ran with the idea of deconstructing then rebuilding some of these old war horses for a new generation of jazz listeners who are probably too bored to sit through a Ken Burns documentary. Not everything is a complete tear down. The album’s first track is “Caravan”, one of Duke’s most recognizable tunes, and no melodic mutilation is needed to convey 1) the allure of the song, and 2) the musical power of Reynolds and his band. Reynolds’s manner of piano pounding matches the thick drumming of Jeremy Bruch perfectly, giving the sound a rhythmic chunk that you just don’t get from many contemporary jazz albums. And don’t worry, it swings. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” follows, though the song isn’t as concerned with swinging in the conventional sense as it is with valiantly steaming forward. Seriously, I’ve never heard the song played this way before and I doubt I ever will again. Graham Reynolds juggles the rambunctious and playful (“Old King Dooji”, “Cotton Tail”) with the thoughtful (“Heaven”, “Echoes of Harlem”) until the next third of the program arrives.
The string quartet pieces are given the primary title “String Abstraction”, and numbered sequentially. And, boy, is “abstract” the right word. For “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, you can tell that the notes of the melody are buried intermittently with surrounding notes, and for a literalist this can be maddening. Again, you will never hear this song performed this way ever again. “Cotton Tail” and “Heaven” definitely come out of the other end sounding like chamber music for a modern silent movie where everyone is mopey and confused. God, it’s terrific.
The album’s final third is the one guaranteed to cause the most heart attacks: the remixes. This is where both Reynolds’s band arrangements and string arrangements get thrown into blenders and served up by numerous third parties, including DJ Spooky, Justin Sherburn of Okkerville River, and Sergey Prokofiev’s grandson Gabriel Prokofiev. Surprisingly, this does not feel like the left field curveball coming out of the chamber ensemble program that you may think it is. Although some tunefulness is sacrificed in these remixes, they are a perfect sonic compliment for what came before them.
And this is why a guy like Linklater calls on a guy like Reynolds; because he can make crap like this work in everyone’s favor. Tempting as it is for purists to sneer while they throw their cigars, they can be ignored. These are quality songs expertly arranged, compellingly rearranged, and tastefully remixed. Talk of sacrilege is for the birds when you have Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington on your side.