It starts off like a rocket: a sizzling bass line is interrupted by a recklessly efficient drumbeat and then wonderfully dissonant piano rears its head and demands attention. This is certainly not your father’s Duke Ellington record.
“Money Jungle”, the lead track, is an experiment in blowing out headphones and preconceived notions on Ellington’s normally traditional brand of jazz. This is in part due to the rhythm section toiling away behind the Duke: Charles Mingus pesters and eggs the piano line on with his aggressive, often brutal bass parts, and Max Roach ranges from one extreme to another; sometimes his drum is hammered away at mercilessly, other times his ride cymbal is steadily and caringly patted to the beat of the music. Roach is barely heard even, especially on the haunting “Fleurette Africaine”, instead filing the background space with jungle beats and rolls. Even through the beautiful piano melody of the song, Mingus prefers to harass Ellington and the pianist ultimately takes the bait, getting provoked into crashing chords that jar the melody off key.
In a very large step from his usual comfort zone, Ellington’s always-brilliant piano jangles away throughout the record, but this time with a unique darkness and dischord that colors each and every song with a different shade of Duke. He’s kicked out his famous big band aesthetic for a simple trio, but a classic one at that. Mingus is vintage Mingus, displaying the familiar hectic bass voicing that burrows up naturally when he plays on a track. His style is at once fiendishly individual and unapologetically personal, vibrating behind Ellington in sometimes uncomfortably intense phrases. This is never more apparent as in “Switch Blade,” a song that opens with a blisteringly bluesy bass figure. Roach flexes his drumskin genius in “Caravan,” opening the track with a wistfully wild and thumping George-of-the-Jungle roll that is soon joined by the walking Mingus bass and brilliant Ellington piano work. The trio spends some time taking musical potshots at each other before settling into a more traditional swing that crumbles into a jazzy fistfight and forms back into a toe-tapping line.
Money Jungle is more or less a musical system of checks and balances; the combination borders on chaos at times, but the three master musicians manage to fence each other in while simultaneously attempting to demolish the collaboration with their respective, unorthodox playing. The end result is an album that is beautifully reckless, equal parts swagger, destruction, chaos and classic jazz. “Money Jungle” is Ellington at his darkest and most intriguing, Mingus at his most irresponsible, and Roach at his classic steadiest. Someone looking for everyday sort of smooth jazz need not apply, but serious listeners will be forced into respecting the flat out nonconformity that is “Money Jungle“. The album is a coiled spring, squeezing, fighting and tightening to the point where it unwinds and releases a barrage of jazz unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
Blue Note Records, 1963