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Music: Money Jungle – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus & Max Roach

You know, there are some albums that you pretty much think have to be good, and you have these enormously high expectations for them. And more often than not, they don’t quite live up to them.

“Money Jungle” is one of the exceptions to that rule. A dream meeting– bandleader Duke Ellington sits at the piano, generously supported by his compositional heir in bassist Charles Mingus and sublime bop drummer Max Roach. With this backing, Ellington is inspired in a far more assertive light than he is usually found as Mingus and Roach push him along. Mingus is downright aggressive and perhaps even angry throughout the proceedings– check his playing “Money Jungle”, where he occasioanlly switches from his swing to an aggressive repetitive figure, as if daring his collaborators to drift outside of the swing (they don’t), or his fierceness on “Wig Wise” in sharp contrast to Ellington’s light and bouncey touch. Somehow, Roach, often considered the most lyrical of drummers, finds a way to negotiate through this and keep the tension between Ellington and Mingus to a boil.

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The entire record is pretty much a highlight– from the fluttering bass of “Fleurette Africaine” (echoed by Ellington and Roach) to Ellington’s beautiful re-visitation of “Solitude” (in my favorite reading of the piece) to the straight blues of “REM Blues”, there’s not a bad cut on here, although I suspect anybody deeply rooted in the swing tradition will find the playing a bit out of character, and certainly Ellington is inspired into a different light by his younger protegees.

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It’s not surprising that Mingus, in the presence of Ellington, plays as well as he ever has. No matter how far Mingus reached, no matter how experimental he got, he came from Duke, and worshiped Duke (even though he was the only man Duke had ever fired), and this anxiety is palpable all through this record. And Duke? What can one say… In addition to being a wonderful soul, he was a very smart man, and knew quite well that he was not Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson, and he doesn’t try to be, he doesn’t need to be.

He didn’t sign up with Mingus and Roach for a gag, to dip his toes cautiously and quickly into the bebop waters. He wanted–like all great artists–to challenge and to be challenged. So it is not terribly surprising that he sounds at times like Thelonious (another who was deeply touched by Duke)–angular, sparse, very rhythmic. This is above all else a confrontation of styles and ideas and personalities. It is musical interplay at its most complex because it plays off of what we know and what we expect from these musicians, reaching and eventually exceeding those expectations.

Nonetheless, as far as jazz records go, this one is pretty much indispensable. Highly recommended.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington recorded for so many labels and went through so many stylistic phases, any attempt to boil down his “essence” will inevitably come up short. So it goes with this two-disc collection. While containing a wealth of gems from Columbia’s huge Duke catalog, as well as some early efforts for Brunswick, it does not represent such defining works as the late-’30s/early-’40s songs gathered on RCA’s Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band and The Far East Suite, Prestige’s Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943, Blue Note’s super trio album Money Jungle, and Fantasy’s The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. That said, this 37-song set offers a great ride through the ages, powered by such classics as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” “Caravan,” “Mood Indigo,” “Cotton Tail” and “Come Sunday” featuring such immortal soloists as Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and the never-to-be-underrated Ellington. Even after all this time, the transcendent genius of “Ko-Ko” still manages to spin you around the room in delight.

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