Six Degrees of Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 07.25.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Money Jungle

Duke Ellington

Jazz lore has it that the session was tense on September 17, 1962, when the mega-star trio of pianist Duke Ellington, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach convened to record the rambunctious classic Money Jungle. Was hot-head Mingus pissed at old comrade Max, or were both steamed Duke would only play his own tunes? Maybe they were feeling the pressure of expectations. Ellington had been avant-garde in the 1920s, the others in the '40s. But now jazz was in thrall to a new avant-garde (and the bossa nova). Could they still cut it? The album's opening minute answers that. Mingus pulls a yelping string around the side of the neck; Ellington reminds us he'd been mining the keyboard for impacted harmonies longer than Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor; Roach's interactive accents and deep cymbal groove show what even originals like Edward Blackwell and Elvin Jones got from him. The music doesn't taper off from there. Some nice ballads, but it's mostly a roof raiser. Can it really be half a century old?

Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Duke Ellington

The week following the tumult of Money Jungle, Duke went out of his way to be solicitous in the studio with the new king of the new jazz, saxophonist John Coltrane. Ellington still picked the tunes, but each co-leader brought his own bassist and drummer; the rhythm sections traded off. Coltrane's comments at the time suggest he was a bit awestruck. He was also in the midst of making a few tender ballad records, and whose ballads were lovelier than Duke's? Their "In a Sentimental Mood" wowed everybody. If Ellington sounds almost bashful on piano when Elvin Jones get to bashing the drums, the pianist always did give great saxophone soloists leeway to be expressive. Duke even brought a new tune to wind John up, "Take the Coltrane." No Oedipal dramas here.

Such Sweet Thunder


McCoy Tyner

Ellington was eternally modern, but new strains were emerging in jazz piano by 1962. Early that year, McCoy Tyner made his debut as leader, in a trio with fellow Coltrane sidefolk Elvin Jones and bassist Art Davis. Before he joined Coltrane, Tyner could be terse and funky at the keys, though there were rumbling intimations of the expansive style to come. In the saxophonist's explosive quartet, Tyner developed new strategies. His thundering open intervals, lightning-flash pentatonic runs and doleful fadeaway chords created a rich backdrop for Coltrane to fly over. That style worked just as well out front, on Tyner originals and the standards "Speak Low" and "There Is No Greater Love." McCoy set the style for umpteen jazz pianists to come. Fifty years after Inception, he was still showing them how it's done.

Tippin’ and Whisperin’

Moon Beams [Original Jazz Classics Remasters]

Bill Evans Trio

When Ellington came up, admired jazz pianists like James P. Johnson were making the instrument shout. By 1962, Bill Evans was making it whisper. He'd made his name in Miles Davis's band, and with his own subtly probing trio, which included drummer Paul Motian and bass virtuoso Scott LaFaro. After LaFaro's sudden death in '61, Evans took a hiatus, regrouping a year later with Chuck Israels on bass. That trio's initial sessions yielded How My Heart Sings! and this all-ballad affair. Evans was a master of the moody moonlit rumination, infused with soft-around-the-edges impressionist harmony. His lyricism and precise keyboard touch made even the sparest improvised line sing, quietly buttressed by Motian's wire brushes and Israels' subterranean throb. Evans became another pole star for ambitious pianists.

Madness in Great Ones

Town Hall Concert

Charles Mingus

A month after Money Jungle, bassist Mingus's next big date was a famous flop: a hybrid concert/live recording at New York's Town Hall. The big band was overstuffed (about double the normal size) and underprepared. The date of the concert had been moved up with little warning; during the show there were copyists on stage, writing out musicians' parts from Mingus's deadline scores. The curtain was lowered during an encore. The resulting LP only reinforced the air of chaos, but the belatedly issued complete concert prompted upward re-assessment. Memorable themes, crisscrossing melodies, wah-wah brass and anchoring baritone sax showed Mingus's debt to Ellington, but he never stoops to chintzy imitation. "Freedom," with the leader's stunning recitation, is a meditation on African American history that builds on the maestro's masterworks.

Regal Formal

It\'s Time

Max Roach

Max Roach had lofty aspirations too, already manifest on 1960s's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, jazz's definitive Civil Rights statement. In decades to come, he'd collaborate with orchestras and string quartets. That trend starts with 1962's It's Time, for which the drummer wrote and arranged music for his limber sextet — with Richard Williams, Julian Priester and Clifford Jordan on horns, pianist Mal Waldron and Art Davis on bass — plus jazz orchestra and a mostly-wordless gospel choir. (They were conducted by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, jazz-tinged classical composer who'd play piano with Roach for a spell.) Abbey Lincoln gets the vocal feature "Lonesome Lover." It's Time is surprisingly light on its feet; the add-ons pack a punch without crushing the core combo. As ever, Max's drum solos are models of clarity, mini-concerti. His instant composing on Money Jungle confirms his flair for orchestration.