WE SPEAK DUKE
(By the way, Tate’s tribute to Ellington really lives up to its billing. Most such projects take “Ellington” to really mean “Ellington and/or Strayhorn,” mixing and matching the compositions of the Maestro and his luminous longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. But almost in its entirety, this disc contains songs that belonged to Ellington alone. Only “Daydream” bears the Strayhorn imprint, and only the incomparably exotic “Caravan” carries the imprimateur of a third writer – trombonist Juan Tizol, with whom Ellington collaborated on the composition.)
But maybe you should start with the one bit of non-Ellingtonia on this disc – the voluptuous poem-on-music that gives the album its title. “We Speak Duke” engages and extends the Maestro’s unique voice, capturing not only the rhythm of his songs but also the lilt of his own highly original use of the English language. It’s a gently swirling stormlet, borne on the disembodied voices of this album’s three muses, Gingi Lahera, Patricia Mosley, and Tate herself. And given Ellington’s own experimentations with the human voice – from the ghostly lyricism of songs like “Transblucency” (1946) to the jam-packed wordplay he used for portions of his Sacred Concerts in the 1960s – I think he may well have approved.
Of course, it’s the Maestro’s own music that tells the main story here. Virtually the entire program comprises familiar favorites (15 tunes from a body of work estimated at more than 2000 compositions), and that alone raises the question posed at the start of this little ramble: Do we need more versions of these songs? The implications of that question have forced many other singers into overwrought arrangements and overheated performances. But Tate validates her choices with understated, lovingly pitched renditions; they recapture the less complicated but no less sophisticated times in which Ellington conceived these songs in the first place.
And when she does depart from what you’d expect, as on the delightful cha-cha version of “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” or “Squeeze Me” (remade into a thoroughly modern torch song), you won’t complain. Tate’s choices enhance rather than distract – a phrase that could serve as her motto. Throughout this album, she unselfishly spotlights the song rather than the singer; as a result, her musical gifts work their way into a listener’s heart, instead of trying to hijack one’s ears. These gifts include, at the most basic level, her tone – something like buckwheat honey, sweet but with substance, and just a little dark – and the welcoming clarity of her timbre, and her delicious intonation. (All of these make her voice a perfect fit for the Ellington oeuvre.) She doesn’t scat a whole lot, and when she does, she uses the technique as an arranger uses a horn riff or a woodwinds fill – to bridge a break in the melody, not to replace the melody altogether.
And in true ducal fashion, Tate makes plenty of room for the instrumentalists who accompany her – in this case, the stand-alone band known as the Original 21st Century Review, founded in the 20th century (1995) and still led by pianist Bradley Williams. On four engaging CDs of their own, Williams and his crew have arrived at a marvelous mixture of personalities and musical elements – including Williams’s own tuneful singing voice (heard here on “It Don’t Mean A Thing”) – to tell old stories in ways that appeal to new audiences. The band contains some great storytellers in their own rights, from the laconic Audrey Morrison (trombone) to the garrulous Doug Scharf (trumpet) to the soulful and excitable Richie Fudoli (saxes), and not forgetting Lahera and Mosley, the vocalists mentioned above. And Williams’s piano work shines as much in the background as when he solos – it’s not for nothing that he’s become the first-call accompanist for vocalists visiting Chicago, as well as for those who live here.
The combination of Tate, Ellington, and the 21st Century Review has an “of course” sheen about it: you hear the music, you think about its component elements, then you slap your forehead and say “of course,” because it all matches up so well that you can’t believe you didn’t think of it before.
But even more of this album’s success has to do with Tate herself. I’d say that she has grown since her first disc in 1996 (We Belong Together), but that would be courting understatement; actually it would sweep understatement straight off its feet. Seven years ago, she sang with precision and care, and an almost wistful respect for intonation and the written melody; now you hear a self-assurance, a confidence in her abilities, that allows her to bring an evident joy and ease to that same musicality.
So to reprise the opening gambit: Do we need another album of Duke Ellington songs?
When it sounds as good as this one, do you really have to ask?