Duke Ellington fans are an odd lot, and it took last years celebration of the centennial of his birth to bring out the crankiest of Ellington cranks. What follows is not my review of tenor saxophonist Harry Allen's tribute to Ellington, but real and mostly imagined reactions. You see, as a jazz fan, I haven't immersed myself into the minutia of Ellingtonia like others have (and you know who you are). The Ellington-phile, like the Coltrane, Miles, or Satchmo devotee, knows dates, line-ups, and has searched for every radio broadcast tape available. They spent most of last year either saving for the huge complete retrospective boxsets or ranting about the proper centennial tribute.
One reader wrote to complain that the Japanese magazine Swing Journal's poll to select the tunes for this album missed dozens of popular (more like obscure) Ellington classics. They pointed out that Allen, in 1994 produced two wonderful Billy Strayhorn tributes for the Progressive jazz label. Others complained that Allen's notoriety in Japan stems from his classic swing tenor sound. Others scolded me for how I characterized his tone. Many said he was a cross between Ellington alumni such as Ben Webster and Paul Gonzales. Some said his breathy tone was all-Stan Getz or Zoot Sims. Readers decried him a throwback to Lester Young. Note: to this point, no one has said his playing wasn't luxuriously complete.
As for his band, many wrote that they bought the disc to get their Ellington fix but fell hard for pianist Bill Charlap's trio. A hit in the jazz critics' community, Charlap and company has been recording for the Dutch label Criss Cross of late. Soon to be a star in the US, his near-perfect approach reminded readers more of Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones than Duke Ellington. They criticized me for praising Charlap for not being derivative of Ellington's piano styling. Then again, others criticized me for not stating that he was in fact derivative of Ellington's piano sound. I called it a draw, because they all praised his work.
I won't repeat the death threats, even the ones from family members, over Allen's taking liberties with some of the arrangements. In duo with Charlap, they slow "A" Train way down and further slow down "Solitude." Maybe, just maybe Duke, would smile on this glorious tribute. I can't say, but most Ellington fans agreed, just before they returned for their search for a radio air check circa 1949.
Track Listing: C-Jam Blues; Solitude; Mood Indigo; It Don't Mean A Thing; Lush Life; Just Squeeze Me; Things Ain't What They Used To Be; Caravan; Take The "A" Train; Cotton Tail; Sophisticated Lady.
Personnel: Harry Allen: tenor saxophone; Bill Charlap: piano; Peter Washington" bass; Kenny Washington: drums.
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