Charles Mingus

Demon bassist, visionary composer, fierce bandleader. Mingus’ name signifies a genre unto itself, involving extended forms, bluesy inflections, complex horn textures, and a large rhythmic vocabulary. Mingus is sometimes mentioned as a precursor to the avant-garde; while his opinion on free jazz was that “you can’t improvise on nothing,” certain sections in his compositions leave the soloist free from chord strictures, and there are occasional instances of collective improv, usually for programmatic effect. Mingus recorded a large catalog, including lots of great stuff for Atlantic in the ‘50s and ‘70s, but I’ve only got a few other favorites listed below.

Mingus Ah Um
May 1959 / Columbia

The multi-hued cover painting fits the music, a gallery of canvases that draw from a wide historical palette. This classic LP distills Mingus’ sound into something definitive and accessible. He leads up to seven players here, sometimes dropping down to five. The menu includes fervent 6/8 aerobics (“Better Git It in Your Soul”), early century two-stepping (“Jelly Roll”, with a catchy Jimmy Knepper trombone line), impressionistic ballads (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, “Self Portrait in Three Colors”), swing theater (“Fables of Faubus”), and bop (“Bird Calls”), among other entrees. The hot-tempo “Boogie Stop Shuffle” embellishes the blues as Ellington might. “Open Letter to Duke” begins with bop solos from saxmen Booker Ervin and Shadi Hafi, before the rhythm drops low and the horns get starry-eyed, then the mood picks back up again. “Fables of Faubus” is also multisectional, always adding some new motif over its rhythmic limp.

In the archtypical “Better Get It”, Mingus leads the band from the bass chair, not just in the extroverted lines but in their ability to support a host of activity on top. Here and elsewhere, the players function like a big band, with controlled dynamics, prescribed rhythms, and soloists getting two or three choruses at the most. The “hit” of the album is “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, a blues-dirge in honor of Lester Young, with a near perfect tenor solo from John Handy. The blues informs so much of Ah Um, if not in form then in the crying sound of it. The only time it gets boring is in “Pussy Cat Dues”, which is the longest track and sounds like it was played twenty years earlier. “Jelly Roll” is also a bit too rear-view-mirror, but it’s so infectious, with the one-two rhythm, slapped bass, hokey ending, etc. Standing apart is the hymn-like “Self Portrait in Three Colors”, where saxes and trombone create complex sonorities.

The 1998 reissue adds three bonus tracks from the sessions, the best of which is “Pedal Point Blues”. All in all, Ah Um is an essential album, maybe a little more reserved than other Mingus sessions, yet still very colorful and occasionally impassioned.

Mingus Dynasty
Nov. 1959 / Columbia

Very much a sequel to Ah Um, adding trumpet, flute, vibes, and cellos to the palette and swelling to ten players at times. And like any sequel, Dynasty has a few repeats. “Slop” is a sloppy ripoff of “Better Git It”, same beat, same melody, same sax solo breakdown. The vocal exhortations from Mingus are more obnoxious, all the yeahs and allelujahs signifying the heat of some cliched blues licking indeed. “Gunslinging Bird” recreates the multi-layered blues fever of “Boogie Stop Shuffle”. “Put Me in That Dungeon” has a really whiny, old-time character that screams Put Me In That Museum, and not even the cellos’ modern lifeline can save it.

On the upside, the two Ellington tunes are very enjoyable. Mercer’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is good fun, while the masterful arrangement of Duke’s “Mood Indigo” reflects the luxury Mingus pursued in some of his own works. John Handy takes the Johnny Hodges alto role, Don Ellis offers authentic wah trumpeting, and the group seems quite in tune with these classics.

The best originals are “Diane” and “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, both of which are dramatic long forms. At the heart of “Diane” is a piano trio section with Roland Hanna, Mingus, and Danny Richmond. As Hanna improvises, the bass and drums hop in and out of double time in a wonderful example of Mingus/Richmond chemistry. The melodies and harmonies of “Far Wells, Mill Valley” venture into twentieth century classicism, while the rhythms are sensual and varied. From Germany to Spain to America travels this most adventurous piece, sometimes in the space of a few bars.

“New Now Know How” teases the listener in the way some of the melody notes are held just a little longer than expected, while “Song With Orange” wanders into a testifying gospel swing. Which leaves the bonus track “Strollin’”, a faceless backing for a stupid vocal from Honey Gordon. But forget that one. The main program of Mingus Dynasty lacks the consistency of Ah Um; at its most accessible, it echoes its predecessor; at its most challenging, it goes beyond it.

Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Jan. 1963 / Impulse

This album is big. Big in sound, scope, content, and impact, it bursts forth as Mingus’ masterpiece in my opinion. To make a future comparison, it’s his Love Supreme, a grand realization of technical and emotional truths. The whole suite, split into six parts, is an exhausting yet captivating listen. Mingus directs a band of eleven players, including altoist Charlie Mariano (the hero of the disc), pianist Jaki Byard, trombonist Quentin Jackson, and of course drummer Dannie Richmond. A key instrument is Don Butterfield’s contrabass trombone, which trumps Mingus’ bass as the lowest voice in the mix. It grunts and groans in the right channel, giving the music a subliminal gravitas.

The first section, “Solo Dancer”, establishes the basic contrasts of the album, rhythm hypnosis and passionate solo leads. It begins with growling horns and a 6/8 feel from the rhythm section, topped with a baritone lead. Mingus’ bass part is buried underneath the horns, but listen to how he plays the meter. He goes from a vamp riff to a spaced syncopation to an unaccented walk, which eliminates the usual 123-123 sway of the 6/8. It’s not showy bass playing, but I think it’s some of his best. And Dannie Richmond’s drumming is perfect. Richmond subdivides the meters in a sparse, mathematical way, yet he does it with great feel.

“Duet Solo Dancer” starts as a lush repose, then (2 minutes in) comes an amazing accelerando that builds twice to fever pitch, bodies in throes of spiritual possession. Calls and answers in the horns are repeated in a see saw or pendulum-like impression. Various horns rise to the fore as brief testimonies rather than standard solos.

“Group Dancers” features piano and Spanish guitar soliloquies before turning into rowdy street band led by Mariano. The tempo slows and then rebuilds itself, Mariano still in flight. The tone of this track is minor keyed and fateful.

The 18-minute finale blends three “Modes” into a suite and recaps some of the music heard earlier, with more guitar, more seesawing horn chants, and another accelerating passage. In the liner essay, Mingus refers to Mariano’s alto as “tears of sound,” and I think Mariano’s honesty is shared by everyone else. The band sounds like it means every note, trite as that may sound. A secondary essay by Mingus’ psychologist keeps referring to the loneliness and “suffering” in the music, but I think these are surface traits at most. I mainly hear an inspirational strength and unity, and there is definitely a sense of hope, first hinted at in the ballad chords of “Duet Solo Dancer” and then in the frenzied accelerandos of that same piece.

There aren’t any real “songs” within BS&SL, and that alone is the reason I wouldn’t call it his definitive album, because Mingus’ discrete compositions can be very special. Yet this is one of the most powerful works I’ve ever heard.

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus
Jan-Sept 1963 / Impulse

Now who’s this album by? Ah yes, never mind. Recorded in part during the Black Saint sessions and partly thereafter, the program boldly goes where Mingus had gone before and redoes a few classics, some of which gain new titles. There’s no doubt that the updated “Haitian Fight Song” and “Better Git Hit” sound even more powerful with the bigger band, but the tempos on these new takes are so fast as to almost blur the melody lines. There’s something to be said about finding the right tempo for a song, so that the content comes across most effectively. The staccato riff in “Haitian Fight Song” is more machine gun than beckoning finger in this version, and the new “Better Git Hit” is at a reckless clip. “Hora Decubitus” revamps a classic Atlantic track, starting with a trademark Mingus bassline (the sliding octave riff) and stacking up layers of horn riffage. It might be the most exciting short track in the Mingus catalog, but until I actually hear the entire catalog, that will remain a hunch.

The slower tunes offer some breathing room. “Theme For Lester Young” changes the key and expands the instrumental hue of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. Not bad, but the original is still the choice version. “Mood Indigo” is reserved compared to the Mingus Dynasty rendition, and it has a chummy bass solo at center. “I X Love” revisits some musical themes heard in Dynasty's “Diane”, which itself borrowed the same material from an early composition called “Nouroog”. “I X Love” weaves decadent chord textures, one layer caressing another, and Charlie Mariano’s alto assumes the lead voice midway through the piece. “Celia” mixes ballad beauty with urbane vamps, Mariano again singing high. (By the way, Eric Dolphy replaces him on the later session.) The bonus track “Freedom” starts with a woeful field chant but segues into a rousing instrumental jam, and then a blues detour brings it back to where it started.

A couple of careless tempi aside, this is a great introduction to the world of Mingus, should the originals from Ah Um et al not be readily available. (And I don’t know why they wouldn’t be.) My pick of the bunch is “Hora Decubitus”. Chain that suitcase to your wrist.

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