I know what you might be thinking: more Ellington. Yet more renditions of the same tunes that have been covered countless times by every jazz-inclined musician and their brother. Are we really supposed to think that there is a new version of “Take the A Train” out there somewhere, waiting to be cracked? No matter how fast or slow you ride it, it’s still the A train. Same for “Caravan”. We’ve all met the lady, we know she’s sophisticated. Let the Duke and Strays rest. Right? Well, if those kinds of thoughts have been floating between your ears while reading this, then I guess you don’t know William Parker.
In 2010, Parker hit it out of the park with his Curtis Mayfield tribute album I Plan to Stay A Believer, an album I regret not getting my hands on (note to self: get that album). What made everyone take the recording so seriously was just how inventive Parker had been in his approach, appropriating Mayfield’s songs for his own style of big band delivery. And it’s not as if the double bassist was a spring chicken to begin with. After thumping some low end for groups led by David S. Ware and Peter Brötzmann, Parker had an incredibly prolific career as a band leader throughout the ‘90s and the subsequent decade (34 albums, by Wikipedia’s account). He’s no fool and he knows a good opportunity when he sees one. The act of covering Duke Ellington, be it a cliché in the jazz world or not, is one such opportunity. Duke Ellington’s music is one that strikes a profound balance of old school class and melody against the bright and bold possibilities that future may hold, more so than any conservative jazz pundit may want to admit to. Put simply, the Duke’s music comes with elbow room. And while it’s impossible to ultimately say whether or not the man himself would have given Essence of Ellington a thumbs up, I think we can all agree that it would have been greeted with a smile.
Recorded live in Milano, this two-CD package is a more than a mere Duke Ellington tribute—it’s an honest homage. A few tracks/half tracks are covers. Others are originals by Parker. All of it is frighteningly fresh, sometimes explosive. Even the reflective “In A Sentimental Mood” sees new life as it crawls underneath your skin the same way a fresh piece of melody would. In addition to showing off the talents of saxophonist Darius Jones, these kinds of reinventions are showcases of Parker’s talents of retooling the old by complimenting it with something new. Take “Essence of Sophisticated Lady/Sophisticated Lady” for instance, with Ernie Odoom’s voice depicting the Mingus-esque spoken-word streams of consciousness that holds the attention of the non-jazz fan. Without fanfare, the old classic is ushered into the room for some smooth swings and tasty sax solos. For fun, try listening to the second CD without looking at the song titles. This is how “Take the A Train” took me by complete surprise during a commute to work, proving that there are signs of a raging pulse inside this old beast yet.
Parker’s band includes, in addition to the aforementioned Jones on alto sax and Odoom on vocals, Kidd Jordan, Dave Sewelson, Sabir Mateen, Rob Brown, and Ras Moshe to round out the sax section. Steve Swell, Willie Applewhite, Roy Campbell, and Matt Lavelle provide the brass while Dave Burrell and Hamid Drake hold down the piano and drums respectively. If you recognize at least two of these names, then you are well-aware of how much ass this band kicks. Also, be aware that this album is mastered at a pretty hot level. The squeals from the reed section as well as well as the applause sounds like it is peaking as well as clipping.
Parker’s originals can be either peripherally related or directly related to the Duke, the former of which doesn’t appear to be too taboo in the jazz world (see Herbie Hancock’s Gershwin’s World). The final encore performance of the title track is one that more or less gives thanks to the man behind the music, but “Portrait of Louisiana”, a dedication to trumpeter Clyde Kerr, picks up the lineage of Duke’s teachings as they were parlayed from the Big Easy to the likes of Drake and Jordan. The howling and skronking of the band is a signifier of just how far Duke’s torch can be carried, stylistically as well as chronologically. And that is how you can conjure the essence of Duke Ellington without copying him note-for-note. You listen to the originals, you draw your trajectories, you find your voice, and you take it all from there.