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.