1959 Jazz, Pt. 2: Charles Mingus's 4 LPs for 3 Labels

Charles_MingusMingus in Wonderland (Blue Note)
Blues & Roots (Atlantic)
Mingus Ah Um (Columbia)
Mingus Dynasty (Columbia)

Charles Mingus was one of the greatest bassists and composers in jazz history, an important figure in bebop who anchored a Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie band at one point but eventually developed in very different directions. By 1959 he was already a prolific recording artist as a leader. Making four albums was hardly an unusually productive year by his standards, but rarely did he match the peaks he hit in 1959.

mingus-in-wonderlandMingus in Wonderland (AKA Jazz Portraits) was recorded in concert at the Nonagon Art Gallery on Second Avenue in NYC on January 16 for United Artists with what was nearly his regular group at that moment: saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin and longtime drummer Dannie Richmond, but with Richard Wyands subbing for Horace Parlan at the piano. These were the first recordings of Handy and Ervin. Ervin and Parlan had come to New York together the previous year, and Parlan had recommended Ervin to Mingus. Ervin said of his first year-plus stint with the group, "Mingus's charts demanded that I play equally well in all registers of the horn, that I learn to read the most difficult music without faltering, playing it right on down with feeling, and that I learn to go farther out harmonically than I had ever gone in my solos." The largely self-taught child prodigy Handy, a young man in a hurry, had just left college (after a stint in the Army) the previous year but would make his first album as a leader later this year.

"Nostalgia in Times Square" is a programmatic piece (written for John Cassavetes's famous improvised film Shadows) that saunters and skips, races and jogs, through a wide variety of moods. The style of playing is bebop from a harmonic point of view and in the way the piece is, on one level, the familiar "string of solos," but the frequent mood and tempo shifts go far beyond bebop norms. While the young horn players certainly distinguish themselves while navigating the ever-changing textures, in a way the star of the piece is Richmond, whose shifting accents are wondrous to behold, especially when in a straight 4/4 he temporarily manages to evoke the feel of waltz time. The track's long "trading fours" duel between Mingus and Richmond (just before the return of the "head") holds listeners' interests far better than most such battles because it is trickily intricate and full of surprises rather than merely being a collection of favorite "licks."

Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke's standard "I Can't Get Started" receives a tender reading that is much less dense than the album's other material. It opens with just Handy and Mingus in the thematic statement, with a certain amount of freedom in the presentation, before piano and drums join. Ervin moves from the theme into a high-lying solo full of space, though it becomes more ornate. There is an obvious splice into a Mingus solo; one wonders what came between, but the effect is to emphasize the intimacy of the interpretation. Mingus plays like a horn rather than a bass, agile and melodic. After the theme returns, Mingus and Handy have a brief tangent that Richmond accompanies with finger cymbals. This tune had long been a trumpet feature for the likes of Bunnie Berigan and Dizzy Gillespie; Mingus and Handy transform it into something different and highly personal.

"No Private Income Blues" is a blazing blues on which Ervin bursts from the starting gate energetically and riffs with exactly the pungent flavor one would expect from a "Texas tenor." For while he is left nearly alone, with Richmond or Mingus interjecting only a note or two at a time; after that he embarks on an even more furiously constructed chorus. Wyands follows, finally featured (remember, he was subbing) on that most familiar of structures, though still more briefly than the horns; Handy soon takes over and proves as fertile of imagination as Ervin in a similarly structured series of choruses that again finds the piano dropping out for awhile. After a brief break by Richmond, the horns trade off, their turns getting shorter and shorter, overlapping each time, with several breaks in which only slight touches of bass and drums support them, until climaxing in a magnificent stretch where rather than playing off each other, they begin finishing each others' phrases and then play simultaneously in one of the most tension-building and then releasing passages in '50s jazz, a joyous celebration of communal improvisation and cooperation that, in a year of magnificent achievements, deserves to rank among the very best even though this album is unfairly treated as something of an afterthought.

The ballad "Alice's Wonderland" was also written for Shadows, though not used by Cassavetes. Its opening has a very loose structure that again calls for an unusual degree of coordination among the players and must have been tricky for Wyands to handle -- he is more exposed than elsewhere. Handy takes the spotlight as the voice of the woman in the film, unleashing a series of emotive flourishes; Mingus also has a long solo that is far more emotionally fraught than most bass solos.

Sadly, while the quintet performed another four tunes at this concert, those performances either weren't preserved at the time or have been lost in the intervening years. United Artists has since been acquired by EMI, which is why this album is now on Blue Note.

mingus-blues-rootsThree weeks later, Mingus was recording for another label, Atlantic. His February 4 session yielded Blues & Roots. Mingus explained the album's title and content in the liner notes: "This record is unusual -- it presents only one part of my musical world, the blues. A year ago, Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that I record an entire blues album in the style of Haitian Fight Song, because some people, particularly critics, were saying I didn't swing enough. He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I've grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed." His quintet with Handy, Ervin, Parlan, and Richmond was joined by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, and trombonists Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis; on one track, Mal Waldron replaced Parlan at the piano. This was his largest recorded group to this point in his career.

Mingus wanted spontaneity, so he didn't rehearse this band and, apparently, didn't give the musicians music, instead demonstrating the pieces on the piano and yelling instructions during the performances.

The LP kicks off with "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," evoking a down-home gospel feel not only with its loose-limbed playing and 6/8 meter but also the occasional ecstatic shouts of the musicians. Parlan's solo plays with the meter in interesting ways at first, displacing accents, until going into a vamp that rachets up the intensity for some simultaneous sax lines before Ervin takes over; in the middle of Ervin's solo, everybody but Richmond drops out -- on their instruments, that is; they clap and sing. The way Mingus sets up the ebbs and flows of density in his compositions is highlighted here with multiple climaxes.

"Cryin' Blues" is a themeless improvisation ; the only recognizable melodies are Mingus's quotes of "Blues in the Night" and "Honeysuckle Rose." "Moanin'" spotlights Pepper Adams, who plays the theme unaccompanied before Richmond and the horns start weaving around his line. This is the simplest piece here, standard AABA structure, but its joie de vivre shines through its dark textures. "Tensions" achieves the effect of its title partly through little extensions of the structure during the theme (though a simple AABA is used for solos), partly through increasing rhythmic density that gives the impression of speeding up even though a steady tempo is held to.

"My Jelly Roll Soul" is one of several Jelly Roll Morton tributes Mingus scattered across his discography. It has a deliberately retro feel to it, evoking the polyphony of early New Orleans jazz; Mingus slaps his strings and each soloist starts out in old-fashioned style before letting more modern harmonies enter their playing, some faster than others admittedly. The accompaniments to the solos are fairly stripped down; Mingus and Richmond shift textures to evoke old and new styles.

"E's Flat Ah's Flat Too" ends the album on a joyous note. This uptempo "flag-waver" swings hard and offers solos by Waldron, Ervin, McLean, Handy, and Richmond. Mingus and Adams provide as rock-solid a bottom as imaginable. Nowadays, two-thirds of these titles are also available in alternate versions tacked on at the end of a deluxe edition and in the Rhino box set Passions of a Man. Mostly they are even looser takes, often with more solos.

Mingus_Ah_UmThen Mingus moved up to a major label, certainly the major with the best jazz roster: Columbia. And he hit with a bang, starting off the relationship with arguably his best album: Mingus Ah Um. It has Mingus's two most famous tunes, the rollicking, gospel-influenced "Better Git It in Your Soul" and the tender Lester Young tribute "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It was recorded on May 5 and 12 and released (in highly edited form on the original LP) on September 14. Fortunately producer Teo Macero's grotesque cuts and splices were opened up in later years (how did this guy ever get to be considered a production genius?). The latest edition, for the album's 50th anniversary, is a two-CD Legacy Edition with three alternate takes and three outtakes. The loose (in the best sense of the word) interplay among the musicians pointed the way to many later developments, from soul jazz to the avant-garde.

"Better Git It in Your Soul" is quite similar to "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting": both triple meters prominently featuring vamps, both infused with gospel spirit, both evoking the impromptu atmosphere with vocal ejaculations. The opening is classic: Mingus throws down a sliding bass line, piano dances around it, trombone joins, and then the head kicks in. A trombone flub sticks out, presumably left in deliberately as a statement on how jazz is constructed. Once again, the accompaniment shifts in texture from chorus to chorus, and at times comes to the fore as a buzzing drone out of which solos rise and subside briefly (I can't help thinking that these tense lulls presaged the methods of Miles Davis's electric band in the '70s). Its breakdown with clapping accompanying Ervin's solo is another throwback to "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting."

"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is Mingus's most memorable melody (and probably his most covered tune; two decades later, Joni Mitchell even put words to it). A poignant tribute to swing icon Lester Young (his trademark headwear inspired the title) and his sensual phrasing, it puts Handy in the unenviable position of featured soloist on Young's instrument, but he rises to the occasion magnificently both in the long thematic statement and his solo.

There's no ramshackle feeling to "Boogie Stop Shuffle," which requires pinpoint precision. The intertwined lines of Parlan and Mingus alone would be enough to qualify this as a masterpiece; the colorful inflections, notably Knepper's plunger mute, raise the theme from mere bebop gymnastics to something more emotive. Ervin, Parlan, and Handy get a whopping four choruses each to stretch out.

"Self Portrait in Three Colors," another piece salvaged from Shadows, is rather Ellingtonian, a thoroughly composed tone poem that has some nice counterpoint. Mingus keeps that tribute to his major influence going on "Open Letter to Duke," a suite of two Mingus tunes where "Duke's Choice" is inserted between statements of "Nourogg," with Parlan and Handy solos. In stark contrast to these mellifluous bits of gorgeousness, "Bird Calls" is a Charlie Parker tribute, and as such an uptempo bebop romp over which Ervin flies spectacularly. It was taken at such a difficult speed that it wasn't until the tenth take that Mingus was satisfied.

"Fables of Faubus" is a darkly comical portrait of segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus as political clown. Here it's strictly musical; in '61 Mingus got to record it for Candid with its vehement lyrics. But the way Mingus and Richmond limp through the beats at times makes the character assassination obvious.

"Pussy Cat Dues" is a blues that finds the versatile Handy switching to clarinet (and, on the out chorus, alto sax). The timbres of Handy and Knepper give this piece a special character that elevates it above the usual blues blowing session. Parlan, Mingus, and Ervin also get to solo on this, the album's lengthiest track at over nine minutes (though not in the highly abbreviated form Macero chopped it down to for the original issue). "Jelly Roll" is just a spur-of-the-moment revision of Blues & Roots' "My Jelly Roll Soul," but no less satisfying for that.

mingus-dynastyOn November 1 and 13, Mingus, Handy, Ervin, Knepper, and Richmond reconvened to make the follow-up, Mingus Dynasty, now included on disc two of the deluxe edition of Mingus Ah Um. This time out, on a compositionally ambitious album, they were joined by vibraphonist Teddy Charles, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, baritone saxophonist Jerome Richardson, trumpeters Don Ellis Richard Williams, and pianist Roland Hanna. Highlights include Ellington favorites "Mood Indigo" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (the Duke was a big influence on Mingus's arranging). Weirdly, the booklet notes to the new edition denigrate this album and don't deign to discuss its tracks (though the original liner notes by Mingus can be found in PDF format on disc 2). Mingus Dynasty may not quite be on the exalted level of its predecessor, but nonetheless includes some truly classic cuts.

"Slop" is another triple-meter album opener in the loose and rowdy vein of "Better Git It in Your Soul" (which it even quotes briefly in the out chorus) and "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting."

"Diane" is a lovely but somewhat unusual ballad featuring flute and bowed bass; when the brass enter, they're muted. There's a nearly free-form interpolation at one point, a striking psychological suggestion in the midst of what could otherwise be lounge material, especially on new pianist Hanna's parodistic flourishes. When the winds re-enter, the intensity is unnerving.

"Song with Orange" finds Mingus in a ruminative mood during the intro but soon kicks into a swingingly emphatic tune. Two Ellington styles are at play, the silky tone-poem manipulation of timbres and the chugging evocation of a train. Of the latter, it must be emphasized that bass and drums find much more rhythmic variety in the meme than normal. Instrumentally, Mingus piles up layer after layer until finally it's a densely woven tapestry of sound, with Richard Williams's trumpet roulades glinting brightly on top.

"Gunslinging Bird," AKA "If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats," is hardly the sort of full-bore bebop its titles might suggest; few boppers essayed triple meters uptempo the way Mingus does here. Furthermore, when Handy cuts loose on alto sax, Bird's horn, he moves far from Parker's quicksilver alacrity, instead probing questioningly and often using slowly developing lines with held notes, practically the polar opposite of the title inspiration. He isn't, in fact, a copycat; what the piece shows of Parker's restless facility comes in ensemble passages where the intertwining of several instruments paints a picture of Parker's complexity.

"Things Ain't What They Used to Be" is a famous Ellington tune, but by Duke's son Mercer; aside from an odd intro, Mingus plays it affectionately straight, swinging hard and keeping the horn ensembles simple. Knepper's plunger muted solo conjures memories of Tricky Sam Nanton's characteristic function in the Ellington band, while Handy on alto unleashes a blues assault behind which Hanna punctuates in typical Ducal style before soloing himself by rolling out a series of familiar Ellingtonian gestures.

"Far Wells, Mill Valley" is a heavily orchestrated bit of cool jazz that sounds a bit soundtracky (and, perhaps because his prolific recording schedule was stretching him thin, there were a lot of recycled items on Mingus Dynasty). There's not a whole lot of solo room, but Handy and Williams get to shine. "New Now No How" is a blues, not very memorable either thematically or in execution but providing an uptempo (but not frantic) interlude.

Ellington's most famous tone poem, "Mood Indigo," gets an appropriately lush reading that's the longest track on the album. That means plenty of solo room, and Knepper again channels the spirit of Nanton. There are mood/tempo/texture shifts galore, the most striking of which are a Hanna/Mingus/Richmond trio that starts out so bluesily seductive that it sounds like they're accompanying a stripper, and Handy's quick hat tip to the languorous portamento style of Duke's main alto man, Johnny Hodges.

"Put Me in That Dungeon" is a growling bit of down-and-dirty with a split personality that also requires a couple of cello players playing in unison. It's the shortest track on the album, and I for one wish more had been made of it; as heard here, it fills its coda-like slot well, but it had more potential than that.

A previous edition, The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings, also combined Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Ah Um but by extending to a third CD included more Dynasty outtakes. They are missed here; the only "bonus" is a remake of our old friend "Strollin' (Nostalgia in Times Square)" with lyrics, sung by Honey Gordon, that rhyme "money/funny/shun me/sunny" and cannot live up to the depth of the instrumental version of the composition. Thus ends Mingus's spectacular 1959 output, not with a bang but a simper. That's okay; if there's anything the CD reissue era has taught us, it's not to worry too much about bonus tracks. - Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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