Duke Ellington's 1999 birthday centennial elicited a rash of tributes, and Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack delayed his own offering to bypass the cookie-cutting frenzy. It was worth waiting for this warm and thoughtful rendering of Ellington standards, along with three obscure gems the hoodoo physician unearthed in the course of his musical archaeology. Dr. John's intrepid conception of Duke's musical bequest transmits a knowing, subtly riotous display of convergent genius. Especially charmed is Rebennack's Hammond B3 work, which imparts a funky spin to the ageless Ellington oeuvre. Consider the rare "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" or his boogie-down take on "It Don't Mean a Thing"; likewise his instrumental approach to "Perdido," a bluesy "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," and the brooding, glove-tight groove of "Caravan," with its brilliantly discreet "Wade in the Water" fadeout.
Elsewhere, Rebennack delivers signature Crescent City piano funk, as on "I Don't Get Around Much Anymore," punctuated by a roguish verbal altercation that segues ingeniously into the pensive longing of "Solitude." Similarly, a fine revival of Duke's little-known "Flaming Sword" invokes nothing if not the genial spirit of that other down-home doctor, Professor Longhair. Integral to the album's seamless swing is the consummate vocal and instrumental backing of David Barard (bass), Bobby Broom (guitar), and Herman Ernest III (drums), with rock-steady guest turns by Ronnie Cuber (sax) and Cyro Baptista (percussion). Rebennack's Ph.D. in breaking the rules conjures musical grace and style in spades, in an evocative nod to the unclassifiable elegance of Ellington's enduring inspiration. - Michael Stone
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