Duke Elegant (Blue Note 7243 8 23220)
During the Duke Ellington centenary, much was made about the weight and importance of Ellington's ouevre. He wasn't just an important bandleader or lively, expressive jazz pianist; he was a Great Composer, whose works deserve to rank among the greatest American music of the last century.
All of which is true, but it overlooks one important detail: Duke Ellington was a very funky guy.
When Ellington began to make his name, it was with dance music, and the sound of his early "jungle band" was blues-drenched and rhythmically vital, making it more the equivalent of contemporary R&B than the art music it's currently compared to.
Unfortunately, the rhythms Ellington and his men worked with sound awfully quaint these days, so it's hard for modern listeners to appreciate just how funky this stuff was.
Enter Dr. John. Where other tribute albums treat Ellington as the stuff of jazz classics, the Dr.'s "Duke Elegant" presents the composer as a get-down blues writer. Although some songs, like "Solitude," are done in a conventionally jazzy fashion, others are totally funked up.
But as much as the good Dr. emphasizes the rhythm, "Duke Elegant" is more than just a mindless jazz funk outing. "Perdido," for instance, starts off with a jovial smooth-jazz groove, with Dr. John on Hammond organ and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber reinforcing the melody line.
No sooner has the melody been stated, however, than the drums and bass break down into a funky New Orleans groove. Dr. John solos as guitarist Bobby Broom scratches a rhythm lick reminiscent of the James Brown hit "Cold Sweat." But when Cuber enters, the rhythm section vamps dreamily on the bridge, and the mood turns light, almost fantastic.
Given Dr. John's Crescent City roots, it's no surprise that some of the songs are given a New Orleans treatment. In his hands, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" takes on a rollicking, Huey "Piano" Smith feel, while his remake of the blues tune "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" could as easily have come from an old Meters record. Then there's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," in which Dr. John seems to resurrect his old Night Tripper persona. Never has the "doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah" chorus sounded so dark or funky.
But the best thing about "Duke Elegant" is its wholehearted embrace of the blues. For all its sophistication, Ellington's music never strayed very far from the blues; his arrangements simply distracted us from the music's roots. Dr. John brings it all back home, and with a vengeance, underscoring that forgotten part of the Ellington legacy through eloquent, earthy renditions of "On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks" and "Mood Indigo."
All told, it makes for a history lesson of the best sort.
Coded Language (Talkin' Loud/Island 314 546 687)
One of the problems with dance music is that once a beat is firmly established in the public consciousness, music built around that beat tends to become increasingly formulaic. That was the case with disco, with house, with techno, and with trance. Drum 'n' bass, by contrast, has largely managed to avoid the pitfalls of paint-by-numbers dance music, and Krust's "Coded Language" is typical of why. Even though Krust plays off the same vocabulary as every other drum 'n' bass act -- fevered breakbeats, deep-rumbling bass, harsh, metallic synths -- it arrays these components in a strikingly original matter. At its best, "Coded Language" delivers all the complexity and lively interplay of a jazz album.
At Home With the Groovebox (Grand Royal GR068)
Few sounds from the early period of electropop are as beloved as the tinny thump of the Roland TR-808 drum machine -- especially matched with the cavernous bottom of the TB-303 bass machine. Roland stopped making both more than a decade ago, but they were recently revived and built into a gizmo called the Groovebox. "At Home With the Groovebox" places a groovebox in the hands of 14 pop acts, with varied but entertaining results. Beck uses his box to create an ersatz Kraftwerk for "Boys," Cibo Matto turns electronica into a wry, postmodern gag on "We Love Our Lawyers," while Pavement explores the rock end of the gizmo with "Robyn Turns 26." It's enough to make you want a Groovebox of your own.
Isn't She Great
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Decca 67812)
Thanks to his acclaimed collaboration with Elvis Costello, composer Burt Bacharach is hotter than he's ever been, and that alone is enough to attract attention to the music he composed for the Bette Midler/Nathan Lane film "Isn't She Great." Here's hoping it does more than that, though, because if it has to depend on the dismal movie to attract listeners, the album is doomed. A pity, too, because Bacharach's music has so much to offer. In addition to two new songs -- "Open Your Heart," a touching, melancholy ballad performed by Vanessa Williams, and an absolutely gorgeous Dionne Warwick number called "On My Way" -- the score includes 14 instrumental miniatures that are so tuneful, elegant and evocative you may want to write a movie of your own for them.
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent