In 1963 three of the all-time greats in Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach combined and recorded one of the greatest piano trio albums in modern jazz. It was particularly noteworthy for the pared down setting of Ellington as a pianist rather than in his usual role as a big band leader and the interplay between the trio was exceptional. It was with this memory in mind that drummer and leader Terri Lyne Carrington embarked upon a project to revisit several numbers from the original recording, adding some new compositions of a younger trio comprising Gerald Clayton on piano and Christian McBride on bass, but, rather than simply provide a second-hand pastiche of the former, instead the leader has made it her objective to give the music a fresh twist with some socio-political elements incorporated via the spoken word. By no means an easy undertaking, this carefully thought out approach has resulted in a beautifully executed album that allows the listener to hear the original pieces in a new light and, in addition, place the 1963 album in a much needed historical context at the beginnings of the momentous civil rights era in the United States and for the trio’s generation there is an obvious quest to learn more about the major players in the African-American struggle for equality. Max Roach was one of the foremost jazz musicians to explore these issues in musical form with ‘Freedom Now: We insist’ while Charles Mingus was consistently and acutely sensitive to and combative of disciriminatory discourse and actions. Duke Ellington, as one of the leading figues at the Cotton Club, faced numerous examples of discriminatory behaviour and sought to combat with with his famed guile.
It has in fact been Carrington’s wish to cover the ‘Money Jungle’ album for a decade and she has certainly marked her own individual imprint here.
She is ably assisted by the guest appearances of Herbie Hancock as narrator, Lizz Wright as vocalist and the collective brass vocies of trumpeter Clark Terry, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart and trombonist Robin Eubanks. There are fine ensemble performances from the trio on Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africain’ with the voice of Hancock and sparse brass to emphasize the main theme. A rootsy folk-blues take on ‘Backward Country Boy Blues’ features the predominantly wordless vocals of Lizz Wright who is ideally suited to the task and Clayton alternates on fender rhodes to provide a modern update. The title track meanwhile, which contains excerpts of both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama speeches, stands out as an album highlight. On ‘A little Max (Parfait)’ the mid-tempo number has a distinctly Latin feel underpinning it and some fine interplay between piano and drums ensues. Two original Carrington pieces are included and of these, ‘Grass Roots’ is a straight ahead trio number that has a Mehldau-esque quality to it. Pianist Clayton offers his own composition ‘Cut Off’ which is a reposing ballad and evidence of a talented composer. An undercurrent to the project as a whole is the relationship between art and commerce and one that has disadvantaged countless jazz musicians who have either been forced to conform to formulaic constraints, or else go for the jugular by treading their own independent-minded path. This trio should stick together for some other projects for the empathy between them is self-evident.