Review Summary: Upheaval, always upheaval..
At the tail end of 1962, when he was finally released from his draconian contract with Columbia that had
restricted him from working with anyone but label-mates and subsidiary artists, Duke Ellington
went on a collaborative binge, striking up alliances with Coltrane, Hawkins and a number of bebop icons
that had previously eluded him. And so, in September of that year, United Artists commissioned him to enter
the studio with Max Roach and Charles Mingus and record an album of barebones jazz that would become
a small wonder of abstracted expression, sodden in the clamour of a hostile encounter.
catches the trio at the zenith of each their individual prowess. Roach was in the middle of
a hot hand, having just released the fiery protest album We Insist!
, and Mingus was a mere year away from
penning The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
, an architectural masterpiece that would see him meld bebop with
classical and ballet patterns, as well as skeletal avant-garde hard lines. The two notoriously
tempestuous players coming into the studio with Ellington immediately created an air of infamy around the
sessions. Expectations for melodrama were well-founded. Ellington had previously fired Mingus
from a recording studio, due to the bassist's erratic behaviour, and Mingus' and Roach's past team-up at Massey Hall
had been streaked in similarly combative notes. That agitation didn't let up during the recording of Money Jungle
with Mingus purportedly storming out midway through the sessions.
All that disregard and tumult form the spine and soul of the LP. It feels less a collaboration and more
a sustained power struggle, with all three times sometimes pulling a piece into utterly separate narratives.
It is also what makes Money Jungle
such a singular show-stopper. Pieces like "Wig Wise" and the re-workings
of "Caravan" and "Solitude" are unsettled and move only in fits; and these terse, nervy compositions exist in a space
of complete turmoil, Ellington's primary writing usurped and mutated by his co-pilots.
In a small room stacked with such talent, Mingus and his disjointedly powerful primal playing are what thrusts
into post-bop territory. In the final act of the self-titled opener, he lays into the double bass with
such force, that the rhythm veers off on bent trajectories, projecting a sound that closer resembles a detuned guitar.
Without any horns to set a hanging mood, he also becomes the sole driver of atmosphere, and on "Fleurette Africaine,"
his bass-line takes on a dreamily sinister tone, free-floating, seemingly untethered from reality.
"Switch Blade" (Blue Note re-issue track) also sees him run in step with Ellington,
mirroring the pianist's counter-melodies, as Roach pummels the bass, snare and cymbal
to the point that a feeling of coordinated madness permeates the listener. The best aspects of Mingus' MO,
splicing modernity into his stubborn modernism, manage to rise above the strife surrounding the album's recording,
elevating it to something bigger and much more difficult.
Not to be outdone by new rising genius, Ellington lets loose here, taking on wild tangents, sporadic solos,
and angular pathways that drift off the rhythm section, completing Money Jungle
's off-kilter swing. It is
Roach that strangely becomes the steadfast foundation of the LP, and though he displays plenty of his patented
frenzies, there are moments when he opts for the understated, grounding pieces
that would otherwise splinter into sheer chaos.
Though the trio had initially been signed to a two-album deal, a second outing was predictably scrapped, as the
three refused to get together again. In ways, that only adds to the myth of Money Jungle
in-replicable one-off entity, beauty that's viable to detonate at any given second.