Of the many centennial tributes to Ellington, this one offers a stance that is marginally authentic, claiming to give a glimpse of what Ellington would've sounded like had he been a pop artist, which he was not. George Duke produced this session with three different big bands: one from L.A., another in Chicago, and the third is "Kashif's Biggest Band." There are many outstanding legit jazz artists playing in these big bands though, and they lend a certain amount of traditional feel within this overtly watered-down Ellington-ian effort. The set begins with Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau scatting, Gregory Hines tapping, and Take Six warbling during the jungle-to-swing title track. Ultimate soul singer Otis Clay with an unidentified female vocalist and the Chicago-based big band of heavyweights like saxophonists Andy Goodrich and Mwata Bowden, pianist Willie Pickens, and trumpeter/arranger Burgess Gardner stroll through "I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues" and the ballad "Come Sunday." The Chi-town band also backs Jerry Butler for lite soul-pop fare, and the Dells, who swing hotly and feverishly in separate segments of "Swingin' at the Cotton Club." The best moment is Rachelle Ferrell and Grady Tate's tag tandem on "The Duke," an Afro-Cuban-flavored jam where Tate really gets to the heart of Ellington's soul, reciting many of his familiar titles in a true blues fashion. The rest of the program is throwaway: Jonathan Butler's overt Stevie Wonder copycat singing on the smooth jazz bore "Day Dream," Diane Reeves' much better " I Didn't Know About You," and Jeffrey Osborne's bossa pop "Prelude to a Kiss" all make for an unbalanced medley. Nancy Wilson and Kenny Lattimore's echoed vocals are drowned in synth wash on the very overproduced "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Ndugu Leon Chanceler's drumming is rock-bass heavy and mechanical during Sam Most's garrulous scat and Snooky Young's trumpet on what could have been a promising "Smokin'," were it not for the bad beat. Barbara Morrison and Ernie Andrews cannot save the artificial jive of "Bring That Duke," though they do remind us of the Brook Benton-Dinah Washington team, and "It Don't Mean a Thing" is lite hip-hop fare with phony, dubbed old-record crackles and a decent rap from Guru about many things Duke-ish, but the style is all wrong. Though the intent for this tribute seems sincere, it pales in comparison to the many other dedications that keep Ellington's music real in today's marketplace. Overall, it is quite simplistic and lazy, requiring that the producers keep doing their homework. Maybe next time they'll pass this high-level course.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos