The composing genius of Duke Ellington meets the ferocious energy of Jerry Lee Lewis meets the exploratory mind of Graham Reynolds in this album, with Gabriel Prokofiev, DJ Spooky, and others helping expand the vision. Seven songs done three completely different ways, one unified album.
For Graham, his Ellington show started as a don't-think-about-it-too much, just-have-fun, one-time-only, take-a-break-from-composing side project. Then it was too much fun, and the audience too responsive, to let it rest there. Repeat performances saw the arrangements and ideas behind the music develop, the list of tunes narrow and focus, and the audiences grow. An album became an obvious next step.
As a composer-bandleader himself, Reynolds looks to Duke as a model, perhaps the definitive model, of a what a composer-bandleader can be and the heights that can be achieved. Straddling the territory between the 'band' format where collectively rules, and the traditional 'composer' model, with its top down system, Ellington create composed music that only his band and those specific players could ever fully execute as envisioned. Rather than attempting any sort of recreation, Graham recast the music for himself and the players he works with, especially the unique voices of drummer Jeremy Bruch on drums and violinist Leah Zeger.
The band portrait came first in the form of short but intensely high-energy shows with turn-it-to-11, in-your face brashness and a sustained driving rock pulse. Instead of the large ensembles Ellington favored, Graham chose a focused line-up up of drums, piano, sax, trombone, and bass. The size allows for a looseness that gives the players room to rip it up and explore their own ideas while still maintaining a tight unified front.
The string portrait came next with Graham stepping further from Ellington's vision, creating something truly his own from tiny fragments of the originals in the classical tradition of theme and variation. Developed in the studio rather than live in clubs, these pieces show Reynolds' more intimate side.
Finally came the remix portrait, where Graham turned over the recordings from the band and string portraits to seven remixers to cast the pieces in their own voice: Okkerville River's Justin Sherburn, DJ Spooky, Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the great Russian composer), Golden Hornet Project's Peter Stopschinski, Grammy-nominated producer Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, and finally Reynolds himself.
Graham looks for collaborators in all his work, whether it has been musicians in his ensembles, or directors and choreographers in his film, theater, and dance work. In Duke Ellington, Reynolds has found a new type of collaborator and an incredible source of inspiration. DUKE! is his tribute to and sonic portrait of one of history's greatest composer-bandleaders.
Not for moldy figs but a positive recommendation for just about anybody else, from belly dance to hip hop. It's a wild ride that keeps going even after you pass Harlem. --Midwest Record, Chris Spector
[Graham Reynolds is] a fantastic player that adds a muscular edge to the rich tones he pulls out of his instrument, someone who knows these Ellington songs inside and out, and has proved himself capable of stretching all manner of sonic boundaries through his scores for theater and film, and in his own often stunning work leading his Golden Arm Trio.
The opening tracks conjure up visions of Duke's Jungle Band hopped up on Four Loko: all tireless energy with a slight wobbliness that threatens to fly off the rails at any moment. 'It Don't Mean A Thing' rumbles with an almost threatening air thanks to some low slung baritone sax playing and the heavy tom-tom work by drummer Jeremy Bruch. 'Cotton Tail' is a relentless bit of slapstick that could soundtrack a particularly manic Warner Bros. cartoon. The only time it slows down initially is to allow Reynolds a moment to shine on a majestic version of 'Heaven.'
The [string quartet] compositions … stretch out Ellington's familiar melodies into long, luscious lines (the best is a downright gorgeous expansion of the bouncy swoop of 'Caravan').
It's a lot to pack into an hour of CD time, but by doing so, Reynolds says a great deal about his trust in the brains of his fans and those of Ellington. --Jazz Times, Robert Ham