If there’s no greater form of flattery than imitation, it’s a measure of the esteem musicians hold the late great Duke Ellington in the sheer volume of famous jazz albums which take inspiration from his repertoire. In this article we look at some of the most famous Duke Ellington tribute albums of all time.
As we saw in our biography of Duke Ellington, the pianist and composer became one of the most important bandleaders of the late 1920s when he began a long-running engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
Fast-forward 50 years to his death in May 1974 and his legacy stretched the length and breadth of the music industry, transforming the role of the orchestra in jazz, delivering hundreds of classic songs and pushing down barriers to encompass large scale suites and even sacred concerts in the jazz sphere.
Arguably the first (and remaining) great composer in jazz, Duke Ellington’s impact on the the music world has led, unsurprisingly, to many albums which are themed around his compositions.
So stay tuned for our pick of the best Duke Ellington tribute albums of all time.
Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington (New World)
Recorded December 1971 – April 1975)
Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, along with Art Tatum, was one of the great early jazz pianists and is widely credited as laying the foundations for future of jazz piano for the generations that followed.
His playing touched the styles of modern jazz pianists such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock.
As a pianist he worked with Louis Armstrong, recording some exceptional duo sides in the 1920’s, and later joined Armstrong’s All-Stars.
Leading his own bands as well, his fortunes dipped in the late fifties but a resurgence in interest in his music in the mid-sixties ensured steady work and opportunities to record until his death in 1989.
Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington is a solo piano recording and is a fitting tribute to Duke who passed away at the time of the final sessions.
Hines, over the course of the recordings, finds much to say. If the styles of the two men are sometimes close, then Hines digs deep and finds new things in the music that may have surprised even the composer himself.
Such is the quality of the music it is virtually impossible to pick just a single track as recommendation.
Setting aside the more familiar Ducal compositions, Hines’s extended exploration of ‘The Shepherd’ is a revelation and sounds utterly contemporary and timeless.
McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington (Impulse)
Recorded December 1964
A member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, McCoy Tyner was making his mark as one of the most influential jazz pianists of his generation in the 1960s.
His expansive style at the piano, with its broad orchestral feel and powerful vamps, was a concept that would be taken up and embraced by future generations of piano players.
McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington was Tyner’s sixth album as leader, and recorded in three sessions in early December 1964, the last of which was the day before he would again step into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to record the epic A Love Supreme with Coltrane.
Accompanied by Jimmy Garrison on bass and drummer Elvin Jones, the three musicians demonstrate their total empathy with each other’s playing, forged through their work with Coltrane – although there is a feeling that some of the latent power employed with the saxophonist is held in check. There are also two percussionists that play on four tracks, but their contribution does little to enhance the music.
The real invention on the album is the trio tracks, and proof of this is delivered to great effect on ‘Mr. Gentle And Mr. Cool’.
From Garrison’s opening bass motif (the bassist also gets in an excellent solo), there is a relaxed air that is buoyed up rather than driven by Jones.
The piece has an easy swing that never falls into merely a drab four beats to the bar but retains interest in the way each of the musicians takes their cue from each other. Tyner is fluent in his solo that is constantly inventive, and wonderfully supported by his colleagues.
Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington (Clef)
Recorded December 1952
Canadian born pianist Oscar Peterson was a big presence on the international stage. Through his virtuoso playing he was able to bring his brand of swinging jazz to audiences not usually receptive to the genre.
Peterson was managed by Norman Granz and would travel and perform as part of Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic and recorded prolifically for Verve and Clef imprints that were also owned and run by Granz.
Although his popularity and exposure were greatly enhanced by his involvement with JATP, Peterson preferred to work in a trio format either with bass and drums or guitar. It’s these line-ups that led to some of his most enduring albums, including the classic Night Train a few later.
From one master to another, Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington is a respectful nod to The Duke and, accordingly, Peterson holds his virtuosity in check letting Ellington’s compositions take centre stage.
This is not to say that in the company of Ray Brown on bass and guitarist Barney Kessel he does not swing mightily or deliver some pithy and melodic solos.
Throughout, Kessel and Brown are content to sit back and provide the ideal accompaniment for the pianist. Unassuming but always present, bass and guitar provide enough for Peterson to relax and deliver a lovely set.
While it does not seek to rock the boat, it rather luxuriates in some of the classic songs of the era.
Key performances include a lovely medium tempo ‘In A Mellow Tone’ and a suitably laconic ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, but it is the sheer beauty of Peterson’s touch at the piano that makes ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ so memorable, with a solo that gentle unfurls and wraps itself around the melody.
Tony Bennett – Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool (Columbia)
Born on August 3, 1926 Anthony Dominick Benedetto would become one of the best loved American male jazz singers.
Adopting the stage name Tony Bennett, the singer has had a long and distinguished career that has seen him dip his toe in the waters of pop music and jazz.
Not a jazz singer per se, he sings with an endearing charm that is popular with the young and older generations alike and, prior to his retirement in 2021 at the age of 95, Bennett recorded and performed with both Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.
In 1999, to coincide with the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth, Tony Bennett recorded his own tribute to the maestro complete with jazz group, big band and orchestra.
Not an altogether swinging affair, the music does show the versatility of both Bennett’s vocals and Duke’s compositions. The album benefits greatly from the presence of Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, and often it is Marsalis who will often steal the show with his solos.
As is often the case, Bennett is at his best on the ballads, and his reading of ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is a real treat, as is ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ with a lovely piano introduction from his long-time musical partner Ralph Sharon.
If at times the orchestra and the over-sweet arrangements seem to overpower proceedings, Bennett gets his moment on ‘Mood Indigo’ where everything else is subservient to the singer and his delightful reading of the lyrics and melody.
The magic in the music is also captured in Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet complete with mutes and vocalised tone.
Shirley Scott – Scottie Plays the Duke (Prestige)
Recorded April 1959
Organist Shirley Scott made her reputation in the late fifties and sixties as one of the premier hard bop jazz organists. She was a frequent presence in the recording studio and recorded prolifically as leader and side-woman for Prestige Records and Blue Note. Key associations were with saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis.
Along with Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott was prominent in bringing the organ to the foreground in the modern jazz of the time and introducing soul jazz as well as her hard bop vocabulary to her work.
A capable pianist as well as organist, she can be heard playing both, often simultaneously with the use of overdubs, in this tribute to Ellington.
Recorded in April 1959, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.
On the up-tempo numbers the organ sounds a little distorted and unfocused, and again it’s the ballads that serve her best.
But right in the middle of the set are two beauties.
‘Prelude To A Kiss’ hears Scott on both piano and organ, and her accompaniment to the piano lead on organ is a delight.
Just as good is her reading of ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, this time on organ only, and the comping by drummer Arthur Edgehill and George Duvivier on bass is right on the mark.
Mel Tormé – I Dig The Duke! I Dig The Count! (Verve)
Recorded December 1960 & February 1961
Born in Chicago, Illinois in September 1925, Mel Tormé was a child prodigy performing professionally at the age of four.
As well as his career as a singer he was also a noted drummer, composer and arranger, and one of his gigs was with Chico Marx of the Marx brothers in which he wrote, arranged and played drums as well as taking care of vocal duties.
In a diverse career, Tormé would also spend time as an actor and author, music was always close to his heart.
His velvety smooth tenor voice would serve him well throughout his life as a performer on television, films and a career in the 1960s and 70s singing popular songs of the day, but it is jazz that was his real love.
As the title would suggest, I Dig The Duke! I Dig The Count! is a tribute album dedicated to Duke Ellington and Count Basie on 50/50 basis.
The half, or side, of the LP dedicated to Duke takes some of the pianists best known compositions with a couple of lesser known titles.
Recorded with a crack band of Jimmy Rowles and Joe Mondragon on bass and drummers Shelly Manne and Mel Lewis – along with some of the top West Coast cool school musicians in the horn section – the music cannot fail to swing.
Tormé was totally at home with this West Coast cool style of jazz and, if anything, is a little too cool; there’s very little to get the pulse racing even on the quicker tempos of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ or ‘Take The “A” Train’.
Worth the price of admission though is a fine reading of ‘Reminiscing In Tempo’ with a wonderful baritone intro from Bill Perkins in an arrangement that is perfect for the song and the singer, and the stand out swinger ‘I’m Gonna Go Fishin’’.
Franz Koglmann / Lee Konitz – We Thought About Duke (hatOLOGY)
Recorded June 1994
Konitz will require little in the way of introduction; an important voice on alto saxophone from the 1940s onwards, he was always his own man and very much at home playing familiar standards in a highly personal way. In at the beginning of jazz, he eschewed bebop in favour of a cool style of playing that he retained doggedly until his death in 2020.
Franz Koglmann was born in Austria in May 1946 and has found his musical home in settings that veer between avant-garde and third stream.
As such, this tribute to Ellington may not quite have the broad appeal as some of the other dedications available, but as a contemporary and fresh take on some of Ellington’s compositions (and a couple by the Ellington/Strayhorn partnership) it has great rewards for those with the patience to stick with it.
The album has a chamber jazz quality and the lack of a drummer in the line up, and tuba substituting for bass on some tracks, would suggest that this does not swing in the conventional sense.
It does, however, reveal in a new light the harmonies within each composition, and one gets to hear these tunes played in a unique and compelling manner.
Such is the case with a couple of examples of early Ellingtonia on ‘Ko-Ko’ (with tuba in for bass and some fine playing from Konitz) and an imaginative arrangement of ‘Moose The Mooche’ with Konitz’s alto again to the fore, along with some excellent clarinet from Tony Coe.
Perhaps though the best is saved until last in a composition that was not penned by Ellington but by Billy Strayhorn: ‘Dirge’.
Performed by a quartet of Koglmann, Konitz, Rudolf Ruschel on trombone and the tuba of Raoul Herget, it’s a superb piece of orchestration that features all four instruments as soloists as well as in the ensemble.
A quite remarkable if unconventional album.
Paul Bley – Caravan Suite (Steeplechase)
Recorded April 1992
Paul Bley was a highly original keyboard stylist whose work was always consistent and consistently inventive.
Born in Montreal, Canada on November 10, 1932, his musical education began on the violin at the age of five, switching to piano two years later.
Bley’s career has always been diverse and, over the course of his long career, he played with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and was also a member of Jimmy Giuffre’s pioneering free jazz trio, recording no less than three albums with the trio in 1961.
Finding his own voice on both piano and synthesizers, Bley was often at the leading edge of the free jazz movement.
His technique at the keyboard would often involve a steady rhythmic pulse that would vary subtly along with unusual harmonic twists. Coupled with his innate sense of melody, his music could often be very powerful drawing the listener into his own musical world.
In this sense, Bley has recorded much of his considerable output using the trio format, or as a solo pianist.
It’s this solo setting in which he presents his tribute to Duke, and he is as uncompromising as ever.
On tracks such as ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ and ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good’ there’s no hint of any desire to emulate Ellington and he resolutely sticks to his own musical path.
In doing so, he brings his own sense of rhythm and harmonic variation to these familiar pieces.
The most powerful music on the album, though, is Bley’s exploration of the Ellington/Juan Tizol composition, ‘Caravan’.
Over four parts in an astonishing 32 minutes playing time Bley examines at the tune from every conceivable angle in minute detail.
His delivery has a deliberateness and assurance that is staggering, and the music bears repeated listening if only to figure out how he navigates from one idea to the next without losing sight of the melody.
Thanks for reading.
As you might expect, this is not a comprehensive round up of all the Duke Ellington tribute albums out there, so please do use as a springboard to more listening.
Got a favourite we missed? Feel free to use the comments section below.