Duke Ellington Orchestra, “Big Band Live from Liederhalle Stuttgart, March 6, 1967” (Jazzhaus); Terri Lynne Carrington, “Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue” (Concord). You literally cannot imagine the shock of hearing “Money Jungle” in 1963. The last thing anyone expected 50 years ago is that jazz rebels as angry and committed as Charles Mingus and Max Roach (who once created a “rump festival” at Newport in rebellion against George Wein’s established one) would team up for a piano trio recording led by Duke Ellington and featuring new compositions by him. It was an astounding record back then and has been a classic ever since – while remaining no less astounding. It was Duke beginning to announce to the world his deep kinship with jazz’s most forthright left wing, which was populated with those who, quite rightly, revered Duke Ellington above all their jazz forebears. Soon John Coltrane – who would go on to make the sulfurously multiphonic “Ascension” – was happy as can be to be recording “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke. The key word in the title of “Money Jungle” isn’t the strident “money” as everyone originally thought, it was “jungle,” a word deeply important to Ellington since his earliest days at the Cotton Club when his band was known as the “jungle band.” The quasi-African “jungle” layering of melodies over thunderous neo-primitive rhythms and behemoth basslines is key to “Money Jungle,” but then so are compositions like the exquisite and delicate “Fleurette Africaine” and “Wig Wise.” It was good of Terri Lynne Carrington to pay tribute to “Money Jungle” and its ability to provoke; and also for Concord to release it as a prelude to February’s Black History Month, but however welcome are the all-too-brief presences of Clark Terry and Herbie Hancock, the disc bears the same relationship to the Elington/Mingus/Roach masterpiece as, say, Jonathan Demme’s pointless remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” does to John Frankenheimer’s original film.
Greater by far is the Jazzhaus first release of Duke’s band in Jazzhaus disc’s “Big Bands Live” series from Stuttgart in 1967, a sensational performance with great drumming in the Louis Bellson tradition by Rufus Jones on “Kixx,” a gorgeous version of “La Plus Belle Africaine” and a fine version of “Chelsea Bridge” (weirdly misidentified as Strayhorn’s “Freakish Lights” on the disc). Duke, as always, is a musical miracle. Two stars for Carrington, four stars for Ellington. (Jeff Simon)
“The Runaway Bunny,” “The Story of Babar,” “Goodnight Moon,” with music by Glen Roven and Francis Poulenc, narrated by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas and Mark Stone. (GRP Records). Here are three classic picture books, set to music. “The Runaway Bunny” was written by Margaret Wise Brown, who also wrote “Goodnight Moon,” and has the same kind of soothing repetitiveness. It is accompanied by a piano trio by Glen Roven. Catherine Zeta-Jones narrates “The Runaway Bunny,” Narrating “Babar,” with the famously quirky music by Francis Poulenc, is her husband, Michael Douglas. This offbeat project is very well carried off.
I do think you would need the book to go with the CD. (I did not have it.) “Babar” can get grim and grotesque without those marvelous and absurd pictures. You have to see those drawings of Babar driving his fancy motor car, or leaning on a mantel in a suit, smoking a pipe. Even Poulenc’s witty and adorable score, played wonderfully by Jason Wirth, doesn’t make up for them. (It would be perfect to have music, narration and pictures all together in a multimedia performance.) Roven’s music to the Wise stories seems inspired by the Poulenc, and it can be charming, particularly “The Runaway Bunny,” which has a sweet, nostalgic circus interlude. “Bunny” is performed by the celebrated pianist Jeffrey Biegel, assisted by violinist Kinga Augustyn and cellist Robert deMaine, and they do a beautiful job. There is also an abridged version of this story, for younger listeners, which is a good idea.
Part of the fun of a picture book is proceeding at your own pace, and as sweet and husky as Zeta-Jones’ voice is, a slow-moving story is doled out so sparingly between long stretches of piano trio music that I think kids will get restless. I do not get the music for “Goodnight Moon” at all. Mark Stone is a good baritone, but this is the same tuneless vocal writing I hear all the time, and I think it will just make kids giggle. An alternate version featuring a chorus is even worse. Two out of three stories aren’t bad, though. I am going to try this disc out on the nieces and nephews and see how it goes over. Three stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Rachel Podger, “The Music I Love” (Channel Classics, two discs). Musicians – or anyone – shouldn’t be so quick to assume they are household names. When I first saw this set, titled simply “Rachel,” I had no idea who it was. I actually thought first of another violinist, Rachel Barton Pine. Otherwise this is an attractive sampling of the already prodigious discography of Rachel Podger, an acclaimed violinist whose Vivaldi album was praised by News Arts Editor Jeff Simon last year. The Vivaldi concerto is light and enchanting, not the flat-footed potboilers he sometimes cranked out. A plus for a performer, though you do not always think about it, is selecting best-quality repertoire, and Podger gets that right. She also includes a lot of Mozart, some of it lesser-known, with her longtime collaborator fortepianist Gary Cooper. I have mixed feelings about period performance. I often find the sound of fortepiano, especially in recording, to be creaky and distracting.
But Podger and her friends play with poetry and enthusiasm, and this set – also rounded out by Haydn and Bach and Rameau and more Vivaldi – is full of charm. Three and ½ stars (M.K.G.)
Missa Brevis: “A Mass For Accordion,” Matti Rantanen, accordion (Siba Records). Poor Pope Benedict XVI. Here he is fighting this uphill battle to improve Catholic Church music, which after Vatican II fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. And what comes along but a Mass for accordion, played by Matti Rantanen, who is the head of accordion studies at the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki, Finland. For people who yearn to legitimize the accordion, this album is a dream come true. Its centerpiece is this grating, mostly atonal Mass, by one Kaj-Erik Gustafsson. Plus – and perhaps we should impose a parental advisory at this point – the accordion gets to play “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” from Haydn’s “Seven Last Words,” and Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor, K. 540.
These are new and frightening frontiers in accordion music, and your feelings for the instrument will probably determine your reaction. One star (M.K.G.)