Fifty years ago, United Artists released Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, featuring bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach alongside the legendary pianist, composer, band leader and American icon. Money Jungle was an unusual album then and now, practically a concept album, with Ellington breaking away from his standard trio to record with the irascible, innovative Mingus and the steady-as-a-clock Roach. The album’s title hinted at what mattered most in mid-’60s America, as Grammy winner Teri Lynne Carrington’s interpretation of Money Jungle shows, it’s just as relevant today.
Carrington revisits some of the album’s original material while delving further into the nature of a buck in modern America. Peppered with dollar-centric speech sampled from Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George W. Bush, Herbie Hancock and others, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue spikes swinging and occasionally funky jazz with provocative political commentary. Carrington’s deep groove is pushed and prodded by the outsized personality of bassist Christian McBride, and the group is rounded out by pianist Gerald Clayton, vocalists Lizz Wright and Shea Rose, saxophonists Antonio Hart and Tia Fuller, guitarist Nil Felder, and trumpeter (and longtime Carrington mentor) Clark Terry.
Carrington opens the title track with a buoyant mallet solo and a spoken-word sample from the film Zeitgeist: “People are basically vehicles to just create money, which must create more money to keep the whole thing from falling apart, which is what’s happening.” Carrington’s Vince Guaraldi-ish “Grass Roots” adds a note of upbeat sanguinity, her drumming spreading and shaping the music with effortless but exciting rhythmic flow. “A Little Max,” which appeared on the 1987 reissue of Money Jungle, is a beautiful samba tribute to the great drummer; “Switch Blade” allows McBride to reference the master Mingus in a beaming intro solo and the song’s rock steady pulse; “Rem Blues/Music” closes the album with lengthy verbiage about the power of women/music, and more pertinent samples of Herbie Hancock intoning excerpts from an Ellington poem, including “When you get into popularity you’re talking about money, not music.” One wishes there were more hints of Ellington’s free-spirited swing cadences and melodic directness. But as a contemporary jazz album, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue is a pleasing follow-up to Carrington’s Grammy winning The Mosaic Project. While you’d never mistake it for Public Enemy, it is food (and music) for thought.