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"Wig Wise": A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

“Wig Wise” first showed up on the amazing 1963 piano trio album Money Jungle, featuring Duke Ellington on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums. To repeat: Duke Ellington on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums! The Money Jungle recording sessions were famously contentious; several stories are out there about who disagreed with whom, but it seems that there is a general consensus that Mingus was upset during these recording sessions. The group interplay throughout the entire album reflects the tension and makes for some exciting music. Jazz is a conversation among the musicians; on Money Jungle Ellington, Mingus, and Roach seem to be having a heated argument.

“Wig Wise” opens with the song’s theme over Mingus’ walking bassline and single bass notes on the piano. Around 15-20 seconds, what I’ll call the B section of the song comes in before the A section comes back around 0:35. In between each statement of the theme there’s an opening for Mingus’ bass that he takes advantage of to good effect. Ellington’s piano solo starts around 0:45 and the song really picks up some steam around 1:00, with Roach providing just the right backdrop for Ellington’s solo. Around 1:25, Ellington plays some relatively sparse chords and leaves more space for Mingus to come to the front for a short bass solo. The A section returns around 1:35; notice how Mingus’ bass fills propel the song forward every time he gets an opening (more on that below). Mingus’ bass around 2:25 pushes hard against the rest of the song; I love what he’s doing in here… Starting around 2:50, the openings between statements of the song’s theme are taken by Roach instead of Mingus. The song ends with Mingus’ unresolved bass. Great, high-energy playing from everybody.

With no disrespect at all to Ellington or Roach, I’ve always thought that Mingus’ bass fills were a highlight of this version of “Wig Wise.” Those fills move the song forward and have a great logic to them. Here is a clip of just Mingus’ fills (the edits aren’t perfect in here, so this doesn’t play perfectly seamlessly):

These bass fills are a tune in and of themselves! How did he do that? Unbelievable.

Jason Moran included “Wig Wise” on his 2000 trio album Facing Left with Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Moran’s version starts out more contemplative than the version found on Money Jungle, with Moran playing the lower piano part of the A section from “Wig Wise” along with first some two-note statements from his right hand and then with some right-hand chords while Mateen’s bass emphasizes the low end of the tune here. Waits joins in with understated cymbals as Moran plays the song’s melody starting about 20 seconds in. The B section starts at about 0:35, with Waits’ drums taking the open fills. Moran’s piano solo starts around 1:00; his left hand continues to play the lower part of the A section throughout while his right hand takes off. Waits’ drumming grows more intense through this piano solo, pushing Moran along. Around 1:50, the B section returns and Waits’ drums continue to roll along through the open fills impressively. The trio is keeping it together while sounding like everything is moving toward chaos – the interplay around 2:30 is intense. Around 3:00, everybody calms back down and this version closes with Moran moving the theme up the octaves. A very different feel from the version on Money Jungle, impressive in its own right. The trio is like a master tumbler in this version – sure, they’re falling down a set of stairs, but they’re in complete control while they’re doing it. It’s interesting that the spaces that were left for Mingus’ bass fills are taken here by Nasheet Waits on drums; Mateen’s bass plays a relatively understated role here.

Medeski, Martin, and Wood have also included “Wig Wise” in their live sets, though they have not recorded this tune for an official release to the best of my knowledge. On January 13, 1999, the trio played at the Bowery Ballroom and opened the show with “Wig Wise.” This version starts casually, with Martin still seemingly testing his drum kit when Medeski plays the “Wig Wise” theme on piano. The trio coalesces around the tune with Martin’s groove-heavy drums and Wood’s bass adding some high notes. Chris Wood seems to really be channeling Mingus’ approach to “Wig Wise” here, getting a nice, fat bass tone and filling in the available space. When they move into the B section here around 0:25, Medeski’s approach is interesting – I believe it’s his use of the sustain pedal, but whatever it is gives this section a floating feeling that the previous versions I mentioned don’t have. Medeski’s piano solo starts around 0:50 after a Billy Martin drum fill. Martin’s drums give this a sort of New Orleans feeling that Medeski goes along with… the low piano notes around 2:00-2:15 from Medeski sound like something Ellington might do. Around 2:50 they break it down for Chris Wood’s bass solo – this turns into an extended back-and-forth between Wood’s bass and Martin’s drums. A lot of good stuff here; I really love Wood’s bass around 4:10-4:25 and Martin’s drums around 5:20-5:30. The drums and bass start playing together around 6:00 and the “Wig Wise” theme returns on piano around 6:10 – check out the drums under the B section around 6:30 – this really works under the floating piano to my ears. The extended back-and-forth between the drums and bass is probably the centerpiece of this version of “Wig Wise.” It’s a fun version with a focus on the groove courtesy of Billy Martin’s drums in particular.

As I said above, Chris Wood seemed to be channeling Mingus in parts of this, and the back and forth between Wood and Martin served as something of a centerpiece in this version. Why not isolate the bass parts? Sure, why not (cue up your samplers). The bass solo parts take up significantly more of this version than Mingus’ bass fills did on Money Jungle, and also work very well on their own, in my opinion:

The versions of “Wig Wise” done by the Jason Moran trio and Medeski, Martin, and Wood didn’t stray too far from the original (though the arrangements both differed significantly from the version on Money Jungle). A recent version of “Wig Wise” from Terri Lyne Carrington’s Money Jungle-Provocative in Blue album takes this tune in a different direction. Carrington on drums is joined by Gerald Clayton on piano and Christian McBride on bass. From the start, this group takes the original arrangement of “Wig Wise” as a loose suggestion. Clayton’s piano and McBride’s bass play a very new arrangement of the “Wig Wise” theme over Carrington’s drums. There is a cool section built around a two-note piano motif around 1:15, then they return to their new arrangement of the “Wig Wise” theme before the piece sort of dissolves into Clayton’s piano solo starting at around 2:10. Clayton, McBride, and Carrington get into a nice groove here…Clayton plays around with the “Wig Wise” theme at about 3:00 and hits on a rolling feeling around 3:30 before that two-note motif returns at about 3:45 for McBride’s bass feature. This trio can do pretty much whatever they want, playing like this. The song takes a left turn around 5:05, when a sitar (?) comes into the picture. Clayton and McBride play some spacy accompaniments to this part. Interesting in itself, but the real meat of this arrangement comes before that left turn. Carrington has put together a very adventurous version of this tune, keeping just the suggestion of Ellington’s original and using that as a springboard for this version of “Wig Wise.”

While searching for different versions of “Wig Wise,” I came across an interesting version from a French group that I knew nothing of before this. This group is led by Jean-Luc Fillon on oboe (!) and features João Paulo on piano, Glenn Ferris on trombone, Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass, and Tony Rabeson on drums. This group took on “Wig Wise” on their 2006 album Echoes of Ellington. They take “Wig Wise” at a very fast tempo, with the oboe and piano playing the theme in unison over the trombone’s lower notes. Interestingly, the breaks that were used for bass fills in the original version on Money Jungle are left mostly silent here. A trombone solo comes in at about 0:30 – I really like the way the oboe plays behind the trombone solo starting at about 0:45 and again around 1:20 – this gives it a sort of film music feel. Nice open drum breaks starting around 1:45 from Tony Rabeson as they break up the B section here. The theme comes back around 3:45 and they play this straight until the end of the song. A cool arrangement of this tune, very different from the standard piano trio for this song.

Starting with the Ellington original in 1963 on Money Jungle, “Wig Wise” has resonated with musicians over the past 50 years, inspiring new arrangements and (in the case of Terri Lyne Carrington’s version) being taken in completely new directions. Well, sure, that’s how it should be. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.