Blue Notes: Reinterpreting Duke Ellington's 'Money Jungle'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 3:44pm

Composer-bandleader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was famously reluctant to fire his musicians. He was generally able to make an unwelcome player feel sufficiently uncomfortable to quit of his own accord, but occasionally he had to ask the musician to leave.

This was the case with Charles Mingus, who was fired by Ellington after an onstage fight between Mingus and trombonist Juan Tizol. That incident in 1953, as recounted by the bassist in his colourful if unreliable autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, involved Tizol pursuing Mingus with a knife, and he destroying his bandmate's chair with a fire axe.

Mingus recalled Ellington's response: "'Really, Charles, that's destructive … So I'm afraid Charles - I've never fired anybody - you'll have to quit my band. I don't need any new problems. Juan's an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Charles.' The charming way he says it, it's like he's paying you a compliment. Feeling honoured, you shake hands and resign."

Nine years later, Mingus was again playing with Ellington, this time on a trio session with drummer Max Roach - with whom he also had "issues". Tension in the studio is discernible on several tracks on the album, Money Jungle - particularly on Caravan, an Ellington band standard the Duke had brought to the session alongside his own compositions, new and old, and mostly blues-based. That selection might have been made with gently mischievous intent: Caravan was a Tizol composition.

Much of the music from that session was recently reinterpreted and re-recorded by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, with pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Christian McBride, for her latest album, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue.

Carrington has added a number of elements to her interpretation of the compositions, including sound clips from speeches by Martin Luther King Jnr, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. It's safe to assume she does not vote Republican.

Augmenting the trio are trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Robin Eubanks, reed players Tia Fuller and Antonio Hart, guitarist Nir Felder, percussionist Arturo Stable and vocalists Shea Rose and Lizz Wright. Terry, still going strong at 92, also contributes vocally to Fleurette Africaine.

"Getting Clark Terry on this track was one of the most special parts of the record, because he's someone who is really connected to Duke Ellington," says Carrington. "My first gig was with Clark at 10 years old, then I joined his band when I was 18, after I had left home and moved to New York. His vocals really bring it home for me, and this track kind of brings my career full circle."

Carrington opted not to follow the original Money Jungle track by track. The 1963 release comprised seven compositions, all by Ellington except Caravan. CD re-releases generally add four other tunes, plus some alternate takes. Carrington chose to revisit the title track, Fleurette Africaine, Very Special and Wig Wise from the original album, and A Little Max (Parfait ), REM Blues, Backward Country Boy Blues and Switch Blade from the reissued versions. Caravan, Solitude and Warm Valley have been dropped.

There are also three original compositions interpolated - Grass Roots and No Boxes (Nor Words) by Carrington, and Cut Off by Clayton.

The album closes with one of Carrington's mentors, Herbie Hancock, reading some observations of Ellington's on creative versus "fake" commercial jazz - "When you get into popularity then you are talking about money, not music" - and the importance of valuing jazz's heritage.

Ellington fans will be able to hear at least one of his tunes - Rockin' in Rhythm - if they attend a Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra concert at City Hall on Friday or Saturday (see arts pages). Also on Saturday is a show by singers Ginger Kwan and Jennifer Palor at The Warehouse (Unit A2, 14/F Tin Fung Industrial Mansion, 63 Wong Chuk Hang Road).

Take Three

Three classic albums by the members of the original Money Jungle trio.

  • Never No Lament (2003, Bluebird): compilation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's recordings from 1940 to 1942, widely regarded as the band's finest vintage years.
  • Mingus Ah Um (1959, Columbia): includes several of Mingus' most durable compositions. Better Git It in Your Soul, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Boogie Stop Shuffle all became jazz standards.
  • We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (1960, Columbia): co-written with lyricist Oscar Brown and featuring the vocals of his future wife Abbey Lincoln, this politically charged album includes some of the greatest music to emerge from the US civil rights movement.