Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Money Jungle: In His Solitude


I used to think of 1962 as Duke Ellington's great period of collaborations. And why not? He did, after-all, complete an extraordinary late summer putting together studio works with Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Mingus and John Coltrane respectively - themselves follow-ups on his Louis Armstrong and Count Basie team-ups from '61. I formulated this nice, tidy little theory a few years ago not realising that Ellington was always working in collaboration with someone and, particularly, between his own compositions and his arrangements and his arrangements. Ironically, this period of supposedly frenzied partnerships resulted in the only true solo album of his entire career.

Listeners accustomed to the spotlight being placed on Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster or Clark Terry or Cat Anderson may find it odd to discover that the star of the show is Ellington himself. After decades of composing and arranging for his famed Orchestra - not to mention the many small groups he worked with over the years - it's nice to get the feeling that he might have had himself in mind while composing and arranging the numbers here. Charlie Mingus and Max Roach do a fine job backing Ellington but that is all they're there for: bass solos are kept to a minimum and you just about don't even notice the drumming on some tracks. Ellington plays with a supple lightness in places ('Fleurette Africaine', 'Warm Valley'), a furious, demented pounding of the ivories in others ('Caravan' on which he sounds like Cecil Taylor playing in an Old West saloon) and a wonderful mix of the two elsewhere ('Wig Wise' which also features some of the best bass playing of Mingus' career, no wonder Rhino decided to include it on their Thirteen Pictures compilation). Only on a worn though pleasant 'Solitude' do you get the feeling that he's treading water, particularly when compared to the masterful renditions on both The Great Summit and Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that he chose it - as well as fellow standards 'Warm Valley' and 'Caravan' -as a tribute to himself and his rich legacy.

A vanity project in the best possible sense, Money Jungle is ample evidence that Ellington could go it alone and thrive. The fact that he spent the bulk of his life putting the solo spotlight on his employees when he could have easily put it on himself speaks volumes about his musical generosity and the fact that he waited until his mid-sixties before embarking on a solo project indicates it was a low priority. How grateful we should be, then, that for once he decided to collaborate with himself.

5 comments:

Stephen said...

Not quite true, though there are good observations here. Ellington's virtues as a soloist were in the spotlight from time to time at earlier dates. The most noteworthy is the recording of 'Black Beauty', dating from 1927. Ellington recorded this piano solo (later recorded several times by the full orchestra) before the band arrived for a session, and Columbia released it as a solo recording. Alfred Appel, Jr., in his 'Jazz Modernism', reproduces a photo of the 78 - as released in Italy! (Even the title was translated to 'La Bella Negra'.) Throughout the next few decades, there would be sporadic 78s released with Ellington soloing or occasionally Ellington and Strayhorn dueting (cf. RCA's 'Tonk', from the 40s).

None of this disproves your point. However, in 1960 Columbia released the albums 'Piano in the Background' and 'Piano in the Foreground', which may mark the first realization on the part of a label that there was an attraction for the listener in hearing Ellington's piano playing outside of the context of the full orchestra. This may have something to do with the fact that a soon-to-be-Columbia artiste, Thelonious Monk, frequently remarked at this time that Ellington was a major influence (as did someone with much less commercial clout: Cecil Taylor). Some A&R man might have decided to test this by seeing what would happen in the studio with Ellington himself in the spotlight. What is significant about the 1960s was the increasing appearance of Ellington in small group formats. These may have been influenced by the success of other pianist-led combos, such as Bill Evans' and Oscar Peterson's. Also, there is something to be said for the argument some have made that as illness and age started to take their toll on the Orchestra, Ellington turned his attentions more to his own talents without his carefully-honed ensemble as a framework. There are even people who've remarked that after Billy Strayhorn's death in 1967, Ellington wanted to refute the whispers that had been circulating: to wit, that with 'the genius behind the throne gone, the truth would soon out'. And yet one of the most moving of Ellington's solo performances was the recording of Strayhorn's 'Lotus Blossom' at the end of the session for 'And His Mother Called Him Bill', where the recording begins with the sounds of the Orchestra packing up and ends with them stunned to silence by the emotion of their boss' playing. It's interesting that when he memorialized his collaborator, the most intensely felt moment is alone at the keyboard. Maybe for Ellington, into the 60s and as he approached old age, the solo performance had more immediacy than the Orchestra? This might be the strangest mutation in the history of jazz; the greatest composer in the history of the music moving away from the great instrument that was the Orchestra, carrying more and more of the tunes entirely on his own.

Paul Margach said...

Yes, I think I'm guilty of spreading one falsehood to disprove another, aren't I? The point that his '62 albums weren't collaborations - merely Ellington sessions featuring some notable names - could probably have been made without spreading the dubious claim that Money Jungle was his firt solo recording (though they do go nicely together). Just to apologize for my ignorance for a moment: it's amazing just how much Ellington one must soak up in order to get an accurate impression of what he was up to. To date I own about 15 dics worth of his recordings and wasn't aware that he did solo pieces - and I didn't even assume it because it doesn't seem like something he would do. I guess I should have picked up the Complete Brunswick Recordings box here in Seoul when I had the chance.

Stephen said...

Fair enough. I doubt there is any comparable figure in twentieth century music, barring Igor Stravinsky, whose diversity means that even the most devoted fan may spend years getting a sense of the lay of the land, as it were, before being able to notice the topographical specifics.

What I think we may fairly say is that 'Money Jungle' is significant because it established Ellington as a solo artist in the public's mind more definitively than his other collaborations of the early 60s. The Armstrong collaboration had been planned for decades, but ended up as a hastily arranged session, where Ellington sat in with Louis' All-Stars for a day. And indeed, they had recorded at least once before (I believe that recording is on the RCA Armstrong you have). The point is, it seemed to be more an Armstrong album, with Ellington guesting. Hawkins was doubtless a figure well known to Ellington from his days in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in New York in the 20s and 30s, and there is something historical about them meeting. But there's nothing conceptually that different from their pairing than the Ellington/Hodges records.

But Roach and Mingus were a different case. Mingus, as you know, had been in the Orchestra briefly, but he was still very much a part of the generation after Ellington, as was Roach. I think it was the act of playing with these boppers that really surprised people when the album came out, as did the record with Coltrane. That may well have changed a whole generation's view of Ellington. We get a glimpse of this late Ellington, comfortable away from the Orchestra, in these two wonderful clips I thought you'd enjoy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj2zzlD_cGI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCug5HG9jLg

Paul Margach said...

Absolutely on the Great Summit sessions: it's not really any different from the Handy or Waller albums Armstrong recorded in the fifties (and, I assume, the impossible to find King Oliver album), except that Ellington was present to add his masterful touch to the proceedings. I wonder if the more accurate trilogy is in fact the
Armstrong/Basie/Hawkins recordings: all three represented dream sessions that swing buffs must have been pining for years to hear. I'm willing to admit that he attempted tailor-made arrangements to suit Coltrane's (most bearable) talents but I'm unconvinced he was trying to do the same thing on Money Jungle. It's possible he even brought Mingus and Roach on board because he recognized they didn't need his watchful eye the way that Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard did.

As for your point about Money Jungle enhancing Ellington's reputation, didn't such a project do far more for Mingus and Roach? It's not as though Ellington had become an also-ran by that point, is it? Sure, they had a hip, younger (but a more selective) audience but Ellington had the critics and his passionate fanbase to counter.

Stephen said...

Ah, but note that I said that 'Money Jungle' changed a whole generation's view of Ellington, which I think we can safely say wasn't Ellington's own! I think it is certainly arguable that there are numbers which were composed for the album which are very much tailor-made to the talents and style of Mingus and Roach. The title track, for example, has this quality, as does 'Fleurette Africaine'. I'd say that it was virtually impossible for Ellington not to attempt to write in such a way that the unique talents of his collaborators were given an opportunity to shine: such was the nature of his compositions and arrangements right back to the late 1920s. The fact that these pieces have slowly entered the repertoire of jazz musicians might be significant; this is so with many Ellington pieces from the 60s. They have neither the familiarity nor the popularity of the great standards of the 30s and 40s, but they have qualities that for musicians coming in the wake of the major sixties figures make them challenging and interesting. 'Isfahan' from 'The Far East Suite' is another such number. There are probably quite a few more which reflect the gradual absorption of the sounds of the Davis-Coltrane generation into Ellington's awareness, and his subsequent use of them in newer pieces for the Orchestra; to be accurate, these are never blatant copies of the hard-boppers but rather their sounds being transmuted by Ellington's (and the band members') sensibilities. Be that as it may, 'Money Jungle' is significant as a milestone (sorry, couldn't resist) in a new kind of collaboration for the Duke: a collaboration with the young. By reputation (I've not heard it), 'The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse' (1971) noticeably has this quality, since most of the famous members of the Orchestra by that point had either left or died. The new members were all much younger and inescapably influenced by the world of post-swing in all its varieties. Maybe albums like 'Money Jungle' and the Coltrane collabo were a testing of the waters. Ellington surely foresaw a point at which he would have to hire younger and younger musicians, and adapt to their styles, which had been forged in the aftermath of Parker and Gillespie. This had already been the case with the advent of Paul Gonsalves in the 50s. It was also conspicuous in the great Basie Mark II Orchestra at the same time: trumpeter Thad Jones and sax players Frank Foster and Frank Wess were all from the same generation as Davis, Coltrane, Mingus et al. And finally, at the same time (and other side of the coin) both Ellington and Basie during this same time often made hitherto rare forays into the studio with small combos; as if testing whether they could exist outside of the world of the big band, as that world retreated ever further into the past. Enough of my blather!