Amid the vast ocean of Duke Ellington’s contribution to American music, my favorite Ellington is not the one who created the swing juggernaut or the sweeping orchestral suites. My favorite Ellington is the man alone at a piano, almost unconsciously letting his mind search while his hands would layer lush chord after chord. Sweeping, dreamlike notes - this is the Ellington that I search for and it is a rare treasure when he was caught on film or tape in this special space he could create.
Musicians who would board with Ellington complained that they could never sleep. He would be up all night at his piano decked out in his bathrobe and a stocking over his head to keep his hairdo together. All night. Chord after chord, notes, runs, progressions – he was searching, always searching for some musical manifestation of his dreams.
The Ellington in Money Jungle is older. This recording is from 1969. Swing, Bop, Cool – all these things have come and gone. The Harlem his music had emboldened and enlivened is now in complete urban decay. Also by 1969, Ellington’s collaborative partner for decades, Billy Strayhorn, the man who was like a son to him, has recently died of cancer.
Money Jungle was a collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach but its standout tracks like Fleurette Africaine and Warm Valley are where we find Ellington searching quietly and beautifully. It is spellbinding. As beautiful as these songs are, there is an eloquent melancholy in the veins of these notes that can only come from a man, a genius, who as seen so much and now more than ever, seeks to make sense of what his world has become.