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Duke Elegant (2000)

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Dr. John

Duke Elegant certainly wasn't the only tribute to Duke Ellington put out in honor of the 100th anniversary of the legendary bandleader, nor was it even the first time Dr. John had tackled his material. But it would be hard to find a better homage than this one. Dr. John proves a surprisingly good match for Ellington's material, placing a tremendously funky foundation under the composer's tunes. The sound is dominated by the good doctor's incomparable New Orleans piano and organ, naturally, and the best tracks are those whose melodies are carried solely by his keyboard work, such as instrumentals "Caravan" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." The vocal cuts are fine -- his takes on the Ellington ballad "Solitude" and especially the dreamy, elegant "Mood Indigo" show off Dr. John's uniquely expressive voice as well as any of his early-era recordings -- though he occasionally tends to approach self-caricature, as on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Any weakness, however, is more than made up for by the closing rearrangement of "Flaming Sword," one of three Ellington rarities here. Dr. John transforms the instrumental into a luminous, gorgeously melodic display of Professor Longhair-style piano over an astonishingly sexy New Orleans funk rhythm. Ultimately, Duke Elegant holds up both as an innovative twist on the Ellington songbook and as a solid Dr. John album in its own right. ~ Kenneth Bays