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REVIEW: Pat Thomas Plays Duke Ellington at Cafe Oto

Pat Thomas playing Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston © 2019. All Rights Reserved
Pat Thomas Plays Duke Ellington
(Cafe Oto, 29 April 2019. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

In visiting Duke Ellington’s canon to celebrate his 120th birthday, Pat Thomas’s approach to the piano drew in many ways on that of the Duke himself. Known foremost as the exceptional orchestra leader and composer, Ellington’s skills and invention as a pianist guiding the orchestra (LINK), in small groups (LINK) – and also, notably, with Mingus and Roach – or playing solo can be easily overlooked. He could play it straight, but left to his own devices, or when he was happy that the band was in the zone, he was just as likely to turn things around to gain the advantage of an oblique reappraisal of a familiar melody to gently rephrase and reinvent in subversively inspired ways.

The Duke could intuitively throw in stops and starts, or embellish a simple melody line to confound the usual expectations, in ways that were to become integral components of the playing and compositions of Thelonious Monk, another of Pat Thomas’s favourites, to whom he has also devoted entire solo performances. Monk visited Duke’s portfolio in his 1955 trio LP (Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington) with gently elegant aplomb (unusually baseball-capped on the original cover photo), and in 1962 was invited by the Duke to take the piano seat at the Newport Festival for two numbers (LINK) which succinctly hints at their musical confluences and digressions.

The slam dunk opening chords of Pat Thomas’s take on Prelude to a Kiss set the bar for a roller-coaster journey through a panoramic vista of a dozen of the Duke’s well known pieces and half a dozen less familiar. Thomas was very much at one with the Yamaha C3 grand piano at the heart of Cafe Oto, working with its rich resonances, attacking with the physical power of Peterson or Brubeck, or holding back to linger on reflective passages and trickling glissandos.

Deconstructing and reconstructing as part of the interpretative process is second nature to Thomas. The obvious is kept at his arm’s length so from tangential start points, unforgettable melodies would creep back to plant flags firmly in the ground. Ragtime and boogie surfaced unexpectedly, but not inappropriately. Short pauses between numbers allowed appreciative applause but no more. Sophisticated Lady and Satin Doll flowed unmistakably on from Solitude before Thomas literally dug into the body of the grand to extract attenuated harmonics. Opening the second set with the helter-skelter of Rockin’ in Rhythm, the unforgettable strains of I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good emerged from the collage of Thomas’s high-energy chord work and irrepressible explorations, where restraint combined with unpredictablity shaped the approach which Thomas shared in many ways with the master himself. It was a massive gig, to which I’m sure the Duke would have given his seal of approval. Maybe Cafe Oto will be able to release the recording on their own imprint.

Prelude to a Kiss
Take the Coltrane
Sophisticated Lady
Satin Doll
Serenade to Sweden

Rockin’ in Rhythm
Mood Indigo
In a Sentimental Mood
I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good
Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Day Dream
Come Sunday

ENCORE: Caravan

With thanks to Pat Thomas for confirming his setlist

Categories: Live reviews

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