Plays Duke Ellington
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Thu October 18, 2007, 02:45 PM CDT
Over the years, the story of Thelonious Monkís transition from Prestige to Riverside has obtained legendary stature. Although the quality of the pianist and composerís work for the former company cannot be discounted, there also is no doubt that their relationship had disintegrated into a battle of wills. Monk wasnít happy that his recordings were given less prominence and attention than those by the labelís stars, while Prestige was annoyed that Monk continuously refused to make commercial concessions to his approach. When Riverside Records, an upstart, reissue-oriented outfit, presented both parties with an opportunity to sever their ties, a deal was struck that voided their contact, provided that Prestige was reimbursed a total of $108.27, the amount that Monk had been overpaid through an advance.
Once the matter was settled, Riverside proceeded to embark upon an ambitious and ingenious plan of repositioning Monk in the marketplace without insulting him or diminishing his instincts. The plan was simple: Monk was to record a suite of songs that had been composed by Duke Ellington. Captured over the course of two dates in July 1955, Plays Duke Ellington is a strangely wonderful concoction. It paradoxically presents Monk in a more accessible framework, while also allowing him room to be his customarily prickly and challenging self. Backed by bass player Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, the pianist did more than simply ramble through a series of classic jazz compositions. Instead, he reinvented them in his own unique way.
Not surprisingly, Monk had no interest in merely regurgitating the past, and he approached each of the eight tracks featured on Plays Duke Ellington from a fresh perspective. In his hands, It Donít Mean a Thing (If It Ainít Got that Swing) wasnít a blast of sophisticated rowdiness. It was a playful but deliberative dance between rhythm and melody, one that slapped authoritative precision on top of his skewed, impressionistic sense of lyricism. Thereís an air of reverence to the manner in which he tackled I Got It Bad (And That Ainít Good), even as he deftly leveraged his distinctive personality in order to transform the tuneís classically elegant opening sequence into an undulating, airy groove. Elsewhere, he viewed Mood Indigo from a sideways perspective by playing its blues-y undercurrent to the hilt, while Solitude was stripped bare and delivered as a haunting solo piece. Although Plays Duke Ellington might not have been quite the commercial breakthrough for which its creators had hoped, it was, nonetheless, an astoundingly successful foray that pushed Monkís genius firmly into the spotlight.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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