The original Money Jungle album, released in 1963, was a collaboration between Ellington, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach. Mingus and Roach, of course, were musical giants of the post-bop era. Ellington, in addition to his genius as a composer and bandleader, was an inventive and innovative pianist, and Money Jungle is a interesting melding of styles and personalities. Most of the songs were written by Ellington for the LP (with the exceptions of “Warm Valley”, “Caravan”, and “Solitude”).
The 47-year-old Carrington, a drummer, composer, educator, and singer is well known in jazz circles. She’s played with a musical who’s who, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Al Jarreau, Stan Getz, and David Sanborn. Fans of The Arsenio Hall Show will remember her as the house drummer. She’s released several albums in her own name. Her 2011 effort The Mosaic Project, featuring many well-known female artists, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Fifty years after Money Jungle was released, Carrington has reinterpreted the album with keyboardist Gerald Clayton and bassist Christian McBride. Carrington has penned two songs, and Clayton one, to replace the songs not written specifically for the original. Other artists on the album include trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Robin Eubanks, reed players Tia Fuller and Antonio Hart, guitarist Nir Felder, percussionist Arturo Stabile, and vocalists Shea Rose and Lizz Wright.
While Carrington, Clayton, and McBride owe a great deal stylistically to the original Money Jungle artists, their own unique styles add to the freshness of the interpretations. Clayton combines facileness and dexterity with an expressive pianistic style. McBride is a renowned virtuoso and composer in his own right.
Carrington herself is an inventive and skilled drummer, making full use of the rhythmic innovations pioneered since the ’60s. At times she adds a soul-funk groove, sometimes a Latin-tinged or World Music beat, sometimes a fusion-influenced feel.
Some arrangements closely mirror the earlier versions. The blues “Very Special” employs the same swinging tempo used in the initial version. In other songs (“Switch Blade”) she begins in a style very close to the original, but then employs more dissonant voices, rhythmic variations, and additional instruments.
Ellington’s version of “Fleurette Africaine” is an ethereal, delicate piece. Carrington employs more instruments (Eubanks on trombone, Tia Fuller and Antonio Hart on flute, Clark Terry on trumpet). In an odd twist, she adds Terry’s unique “Mumbles” scat singing to the mix. This would seem to contradict the overall mood, but strangely enough it works, adding a sense of humor to the song. (Carrington deliberately added Terry to the ensemble as a direct link to Ellington, and to acknowledge her first gig with his band as a child).
The transformation of “Backward Country Boy Blues” from Ellington’s version is much more complete, and somewhat less successful. It opens with some nifty acoustic slide-guitar, accompanied by Wright’s gospel-like vocals. But it then morphs into a generic-sounding smooth jazz groove overlaid with a piano solo and background vocals.
The title track begins with a spoken clip from the movie Zeitgeist, asserting that people are simply vehicles for the creation of money. It follows with an up-tempo, blues-oriented theme, which evolves into some exploratory give-and-take between Carrington, McBride, and Clayton. It concludes with some spoken clips from Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others deploring poverty and inequality in the world.
The song “Grass Roots” contains more short spoken clips relating to economics. I admit to being somewhat confused about the message that Carrington is trying to convey. Is she attacking capitalism, the unequal distribution of wealth, commercialism, or all three?
Having said that, some of the readings are quite effective. In the song “REM Blues/Music,” Shea Rose reads from a poem Ellington wrote in his autobiography:
Music is a beautiful woman in her prime,
Music is a scrubwoman, clearing away the dirt and grime,
Music is a girl child
Simple, sweet and beaming,
A thousand years old,
Cold as sleet, and scheming.
It’s not great poetry, but it perfectly expresses Ellington’s approach to his art. The song setting, and Rose’s expressive reading, make this piece very compelling. The track ends with Herbie Hancock quoting Ellington’s words regarding jazz, money, and popularity.
Of course, all this reconfiguring is very much in the spirit and openness of Duke Ellington. A fascinating aspect of the original Money Jungle is listening to Ellington adapt his style to his surroundings, at times injecting modern pianistic voicings, while keeping his distinctive sound. Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue is a worthy tribute by some of the sharpest and thoughtful artists on the scene.