This post has been on my mind for a while, and with the Grammy drawing close and an increasing likelihood of Terri Lyne Carrington’s re-interpretation stealing the show, I realize it is time. It is time for other reasons too. Money Jungle, the album turned 50 years old last year, and is easily one of the recordings that every jazz lover should have in his collection. Featuring Duke Ellington with the much younger bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, this album is a coming together of masters from different eras, masters with huge egos and reputations, the end result of which could easily have been disastrous but turns out to be exceptional. Ellington is the undisputed king of swing, Roach is rooted in bebop, while Mingus is a post-bop free jazz icon who challenged the very definitions of blues and hard bop.
The album was recorded on September 17, 1962, with no rehearsals, and sheet music that only outlined basic melody and harmony, with a visual descriptive cue from Ellington. For example, Ellington describes a track as "crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music." This was the first time that the three musicians played together, having met to discuss the project only the day before. There have been three major releases of the album, the LP in 1963 featuring seven tracks, a 1987 CD release by Blue Note with six additional tracks from the session, arranged in the order they were recorded, and a 2002 remaster with eight additional tracks, with the original seven tracks in the original order at the start of the album. My personal favorite is the 2002 release, since it allows you to experience the album as the trio had envisioned it, as well as having a clearer drum track. The session itself has some folklore around it, with Mingus walking out, only to be coaxed back by Ellington.
I consider the album important for a number of reasons. The foremost reason is that this is the only recording of these three masters together. Ellington was at the peak of his career, and his decision to do a trio with the two must have been a difficult one. In addition, it was a meeting of eras in playing style as well as age. Ellington was 63, Mingus 40, and Roach 38. Mingus and Roach had both carved out their places in the evolution of jazz, and when the three played together, unrehearsed, it was almost like a battle of the kings. Ellington had successfully traversed decades of jazz history at the time, and was at the forefront of the big band movement and this was his moment to reassert his modernity. If Mingus had a guru, and if Mingus carried any legacy, it was Ellington’s. The two had briefly worked together 10 years before this recording, but Mingus’ (in)famous temper resulted in his becoming one of the three musicians ever to have been fired by Ellington. So in some senses, it was a meeting of the acclaimed Guru and the spited disciple. Roach on the other hand had already been recognized for his work on developing snare styles that gave more room to soloists to work along with.
The aggression and the battle of wits can heard all through the album, with Ellington playing with an angularity and dissonance never heard before in his work, and Mingus at his belligerent best, almost leading the act. Roach is at his best too, popping and splashing, adding an almost symphonic, poly-rhythmic quality to the percussion. Yet through it all, the session comes through as a integrated whole, showcasing all that jazz is, a real time improvisational collaboration. If you are reading this, it is likely that you have heard the album, but in case you have not, I suggest you hear it right away to get a feel for what I am talking about.
When I heard that Terri Lyne Carrington was doing a re-interpretation of the album, I was honestly not prepared for what I was going to hear. First off, it is difficult to imagine a re-interpretation of the album. The tracks by themselves have been interpreted by many, but the energy of the album is something that one imagines is impossible to recreate. A re-interpretation, if I might say so, sounds like heresy. Secondly, I had heard Terri Lyne Carrington only on the Herbie Hancock albums that she played on, and to my mind, she was more academic than creative. Thirdly, the only complete album of hers that I had heard was the 2009 More To Say, and I had found it too "modern" and "smooth" for my liking. All three of these preconceptions were severely, severely challenged when I heard Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue.
Recorded to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the original release, it is totally a new experience. She interprets it from a totally contemporary perspective, along with Gerald Clayton (who is up for a Grammy in the same category with his album Life Forum) and Christian McBride (also nominated in the same category for his trio album Out Here). If you are familiar with the original, this album is a treat on every listen, since it is so unpredictable, so modern, and blends urban styles so seamlessly with the compositions. It generously uses voice and the spoken word to generate an altogether new dimension to the core artistic message of the original session. A few of the original tracks are replaced by new compositions, though careful listening reveals many melodic references in these new tracks to the tracks they replace. The album also features a large number of guest performers, Clark Terry, Robin Eubanks, Tia Fuller, Antonio Hart, Nir Felder, Arturo Stabile and vocalists Shea Rose and Lizz Wright. The last track of the album, one of the prettiest, has Shea Rose reading Ellington’s beautiful poem, Music Is My Mistress (if you have not read this, please do so at the earliest, and keep your gender sensitivity aside while you do so), and Herbie Hancock closing the track with Ellington’s quotes about society, money, art and popularity. A true treat for jazz lovers regardless of whether you are familiar with the source material or not.
A post on these two albums would be incomplete without a comment on the brilliant percussion work by Terri Lyne Carrington. She takes the quiet brilliance of the drum work on the original to an altogether new level, with a clean, urban sound that not only captures Roach’s syncopal complexity but transcends it. And that, along with the fact that this is a truly significant and original piece of work in spite of being a reinterpretation and a tribute, is no small feat to accomplish.
I truly hope that this album gets the recognition it deserves. Will be keeping my fingers crossed during the awards announcements.
I have deliberately stayed away from analyzing the tracks, either from the original or from this tribute album, since I feel you deserve to enjoy it as it rolls out from your changer. I would love to know what you think of it when you do listen - especially if you are a jazz purist.