Various Artists: Red, Hot and Indigo: A Tribute to Duke Ellington

Various Artists
Red, Hot and Indigo: a Tribute to Duke Ellington

It has been 10 years since the Red Hot organization brought together an eclectic group of artists and musicians to record Red, Hot and Blue, a collection of post-modern meditations on the songs of Cole Porter. The aim of the Red Hot organization was to educate the public about AIDS through popular culture, eventually raising over seven million dollars that would be dedicated to AIDS relief, but their commitment to challenge the misconceptions about HIV was equally matched with a desire to democratize the discourse surrounding HIV by including a diverse range of voices. Thus that first recording included Cole Porter interpretations by Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, Jody Watley, Lisa Stansfield, Neneh Cherry, the Neville Brothers and the Jungle Brothers, whose rendition of “I Get a Kick (Out of You)” helped orient the hip-hop community to the ravages of HIV.

In this regard, the Red Hot organization was clearly serious about getting real about the impact of AIDS and HIV in communities of color, a commitment that was reinforced with the release of Stolen Moments: Red, Hot and Cool (GRP, 1994), which brought together jazz icons Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, the late Lester Bowie and Pharaoh Sanders with hip-hop/jazz hybrids such as The Roots, Digable Planets and the Pharcyde along with the likes of Joshua Redman, The Groove Collective, Carleen Anderson, Me’Shell Ndeg√©Ocello, and Michael Franti. A year later the groundbreaking America Is Slowly Dying would be hip-hop’s definitive statement on the AIDS crisis that took the life of Eric “Eazy E” Wright. Over a 10-year period the Red Hot organization produced 12 full-length recordings, including projects dedicated to the music of George Gershwin (Red, Hot, and Rhapsody in 1998), the Bossa Nova (Red, Hot, and Rio in 1996) and the ambient and trip-hop movements with Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip, which includes a collaboration with Amiri Baraka and DJ Spooky.

Red, Hot, and Indigo: A Tribute to Duke Ellington is the 13th release in the series, bringing together the talents of Mary J. Blige, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Amel Larrieux, Les Nubians, Medeski Martin and Wood, Clark Terry, Don Byron, and Red Hot veterans The Roots among others, to celebrate the music of Duke Ellington and continue to challenge AIDS under-education in communities of color. For the uninitiated, Duke Ellington is simply one of the most significant, if not the most significant, American composer of the 20th century, with a career which spanned from the early 1920s until his death in 1974. As Stanley Crouch has suggested, Ellington was so committed to his music — American music no doubt from the belly of African-American experience and vision — that he never “left the road”, touring profusely throughout his career. Given Ellington’s influence and prolific output, a tribute recording is logical — it’s been done numerous times in the past — but the choice here by the Red Hot organization is also a recognition of the creative relationship between Ellington and his most well regarded collaborator pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn, who in the hyper-masculine and no doubt homophobic world of Jazz was an “out” homosexual.

Like many of the previous Red Hot recordings an attempt is made to bring together the most disparate talents allowable under the law and that has of course been part of the genius of the previous recordings. Collaborations such as the PM Dawn/Flora Purim/Airto and Incognito/Omar/Anna Caram combos both from Red, Hot, and Rio are but two examples of this. Though none of the parings on Red, Hot and Indigo match the delicious sinister brilliance of the Jill Scott/Moby/Blue Man Group performance during the most recent Grammy Awards telecast, the recording is marked by some interesting performances. For example Melky Sedeck (brother and sister of Wyclef Jean) are joined by Folk music She-ra Joan Armatrading in a provocative reading of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”.

In an example of new meeting old on the terrain of the classic, the horribly under-exposed chanteuse Amel Larreiux is paired with the legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, with a fairly traditional reading of “Sophisticated Lady”. The 80-year-old Terry, who is largely credited with bringing fellow St. Louis trumpeter Miles Davis to New York in the late 1940s, recently appeared on the Divas Live tribute to Aretha (“I love you Ms. Franklin, whoa, I am for Real.”) Franklin, showed none of the effects of his 80 years, in what was one of the night’s most memorable performances, Jilly from Philly’s performance not withstanding. For her part Larreiux, who was trained at the High School of the Arts in Philadelphia, performs the song’s lyrics with a stately nuance that could not likely have been pulled off by many of her contemporary peers including the deservedly celebrated Jill Scott and Erykah Badu.

“Sophisticated Lady” is one of a few “traditional” readings of Ellington’s music that is included on the project. Terry Callier presents a stripped down version of the classic “Satin Doll” accompanied by his own guitar, bassist Eric Hochberg and percussionist Pennington McGhee. The low key Kenny Burrell contributes a straight reading of “In a Sentimental Mood” back by Medeski, Martin and Wood. The trio also backs Burrell in a funked up version — what else would you expect from them? — of “C Jam Blues” and are the supporting cast for trombonist’s Art Baron’s stirring rendition of “Creole Love Call” (Medeski is on Wurlitzer for this one) and iconoclast supreme Don Byron’s “Bli Blip” which also features the vocals of Dean Bowman. The trio, which is comprised of John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums and Chris Wood on bass, have recorded Ellington compositions for their previous projects Notes for the Underground (“Caravan”) and Friday Afternoon (“Chinoiserie”). In addition to their background work, they contribute renditions of Ellington’s “Acht O’Clock Rock” and a “dub” version of “Blue Pepper”, both accompanied by the aforementioned Art Baron and Don Byron, to the Red, Hot and Indigo project.

The recording hits its stride though, when contemporary R&B and rap artists venture to interpret Ellington’s work. The French born duo Les Nubians, for example, offer a touching interpretation of Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. The song which has been given a myriad of brilliant readings by the likes of Abbey Lincoln Aminata Moseka, Jennifer Holliday and a particularly heart wrenching version by the late Eric Dolphy (see Iron Man) is given a fresh arrangement as the song’s opening line “Lord, Dear Lord, above / God Almighty from above” is refigured as the song’s chorus. The definitive “round the way” girl, Mary J. Blige gives a Bentleys style spin (circa 1984 — think Dennis Edwards “Don’t Look Any Further” for a reference) to “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me”, which initially featured the quintessential “round the way” vocals of Al Hibbler when Ellington’s orchestra first recorded the song in the 1940s. In a logical grouping Mos Def and Talib Kweli are joined by bassist Ron Carter and Hammond B-3 specialist “Big” John Patton for a version of “Money Jungle” with original lyrics by the Black Star duo. A member of Miles Davis’s great mid-1960s quintet that also contained Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Carter’s hip-hop credentials date back to his appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic Low End Theory (“Jazz”).

Patton, who recorded a string of fantastic recordings for Blue Note in the 1960s (Accent on the Blues and Boogaloo are two of his best from that period) sounds as muscular as ever and possesses a rhythmic sensibility that is well suited for hip-hop aesthetics. But the highlight of the recording is The Roots’ version of “Caravan”. where they are joined by a litany of neo-Philly-Soul figures including D’Angelo, James Poyser and the Jazzy Fat Nastees. In addition to their appearance on Stolen Moments (“Proceed II” with Roy “Daddy Bug” Ayers), the Roots have also contributed to the Red Hot Gershwin tribute, doing a rendition of “Summertime” with the “last” Soul Man Bobby Womack. Courtesy of the keyboard work of “D” and Poyser, The Roots’ version of Caravan sounds like an earthquake, replete with lyrics like:

“Around the late thirties, my grandparents caught the train / Up in New York to get a taste of that Harlem swing / Duke Ellington front and center, but my peoples had to enter through the back door ’cause it was said that the front was too good / Yeah right, fuck it man, yo we’ll have a good night, but I won’t forget that you know both black and white came to see Duke and Count Basie and Cab Calloway, but dig this its all about the ‘Caravan” today.”

The lyrics by Malik B, which focus on the legalized discrimination faced by blacks early in the 20th century, are the one moment when the listener is forced to come to terms with the discrimination that many with AIDS are faced with, particularly within communities of color.

Unlike previous Red Hot recordings that were largely joint ventures with established recording labels such as Verve/Antilles, EastWest, and GRP, Red, Hot and Indigo bears the sole imprint of the Red Hot organization. To date, the disc is only available via

Currently the next Red Hot production, Red, Hot, and Riot, is receiving its finishing touches in preparation for a fall release. As organizations such as the Black Radical Congress are forced to issue statements condemning the rampant homophobic policies of African States — Namibian President Sam Numoja recently issued an order to purge his nation of Gays and Lesbians, while Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has also issued public statements to this effect — Red, Hot, and Riot, which is a tribute to the music of the “Father of Afro-Beat” Fela Kuti who died of AIDS in 1997, may be the most timely of the Red Hot recordings. Fela’s attempts to hold corrupt Nigerian leaders accountable are legendary as is was his appetite for the “sweet” fruit of life. Red, Hot, and Riot will likely allow conversations about AIDS prevention and relief to be fully considered within the context of counter-hegemonic political and cultural practices that are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-classist. The project’s lead single is a rendition of Fela’s classic “Water Get No Enemy” featuring D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Nile Rodgers (folks forget he was down with the Panthers before Chic popped off), Fela’s son Femi Kuti and the usual Soultronics cast members such as James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson.