1. Money Jungle
2. Fleurette Africaine
3. Very Special
4. Warm Valley
5. Wig Wise
8. Switch Blade
9. A Little Max (Parfait)
10. REM Blues
11. Backward Country Boy Blues
12. Solitude (alternate take)
13. Solitude (orchestral version 1)
14. Solitude (orchestral version 2)
15. Caravan (orchestral version)
Duke Ellington - Piano
Charles Mingus - Bass (tracks 1-12)
Max Roach - Drums (tracks 1-12)
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (tracks 13-15)
The early 1960s was a busy time for Duke Ellington, especially as he recorded with such unusual colleagues as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong. This 1962 album puts Ellington with two musicians who might be regarded as "modernists" - Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Mingus and Roach had actually played with Duke's band several times before this recording but this was the first time they appeared as a trio. Duke composed all the tunes afresh for this session, except for three staples from the Ducal songbook: Warm Valley, Caravan (co-written with Juan Tizol) and Solitude (with Eddie De Lange).
Mixing Ellington with these other, younger jazzmen may appear as perverse as the recording he made nine days later with John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Indeed, my reaction to this album is similar to what I felt about the Coltrane LP.
For instance, in the opening title-track, it sounds almost as if Mingus, instead of playing walking bass, is trying to throw Ellington off balance by strumming his instrument. Mingus appropriately plays a flowery sequence behind Duke's theme statement in Fleurette Africaine but soon goes his own way again. Max Roach meanwhile plays the tomtoms with mallets, providing a suitable backing. Thankfully, Mingus settles into straight four-four for much of Very Special, allowing Ellington to improvise more comfortably.
The Duke starts Warm Valley and Solitude unaccompanied. Wig Wise is the first track where I feel that the three men are really playing as a trio, with Duke leaving space for bass and drum breaks. Caravan is rather chaotic but Solitude works better. Switch Blade opens with a Mingus solo and the piece swings gently, as Roach supplies subtle brush work. Max steps into the spotlight with A Little Max, also known as Parfait, where the drummer adroitly fills the gaps left by piano and bass.
The "REM" in REM Blues stands for Roach, Ellington, Mingus. Like many of the tracks on the album, this is a straightforward blues. Backward Country Boy Blues is similar - and it is the trio's longest track on the album at six-and-a-half minutes. The fact that this is the longest track on the album suggests that the three musicians didn't feel sufficiently enthused to stretch out for longer.
It is interesting to hear Ellington in this unexpected company but it often sounds as if Ellington is being confronted rather than partnered by Mingus and Roach. This view is supported by Duke's description of the session in his autobiography, Music is my Mistress. He says that, at one point, Mingus threatened to leave the session, claiming "I can't play witth that drummer". Ellington had to coax him back to continue the recording. The tension in the studio creates an unhappy atmosphere which is transmitted to the music.
Some previous reissues of this album included alternate takes of tracks 8 to 10 but this version inexplicably omits those, and adds instead an extra three by the Ellington Orchestra. The two extra versions of Solitude (tracks 13 and 14) date respectively from 1957 and 1950, and are remarkably different. The extra Caravan comes from 1962 and features a swirling solo by tenorist Paul Gonsalves.