CHARLES MINGUS The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (Impulse!)

I feel a rant coming on, and this looks like as appropriate a place for it as any other, so here goes. My sister kindly gifted me an iTunes voucher for Christmas, and so, mindful of the value-added possibilities of downloading lots of lengthy prog for the 79p a track, I tried to add the likes of “Echoes” or “Ommadawn” to my basket. Apple, of course, are one step ahead of my scheme: if you’re after a track of anything over eight or so minutes’ duration you can buy the entire album for 7.99 or you can sing for your “Supper’s Ready”. Turning to plan B, and eventually settling on a few albums I’ve been after for a while, this by Mingus and Scott Walker’s third, well, let’s just say I could’ve bought the CDs cheaper from Amazon Marketplace, a course of action that would also have provided me with the cover art, booklet notes, personnel information and (and I never thought I’d be trotting this one out as an example of a desirable property) CD quality sound. So, I remain bemused by the appeal of the whole iTunes album buying experience: it’s expensive, delivers music with inferior sonics and denies the listener any tangible physical artefact. I’ll concede that iTunes’ great strength might be its ability to allow the purchase of a smattering of tracks from an album (as long as they’re not over eight minutes, of course), but I’ve been buying my music in album-length portions since I was six, and I see no aesthetic or economic reason to change the habit of close to a lifetime just yet. (A digression: to people who claim that most albums only contain a few worthwhile tracks anyway, are those worthwhile tracks the ones you’ve had drilled into your cranium by heavy radio rotation, by any chance? Sometimes music has to be worked at to be appreciated: it took years of occasional, reluctant listening before the true brilliance of Lou Reed’s “Berlin” revealed itself to me, and, more recently, I vividly recall the moment that Frog Eyes’ “The Golden River” unravelled itself from a trying cacophony into a work of definite, if challenging, merit.)

Rant over; now, about this Mingus. Wikipedia tells me (because the booklet I haven’t got sure doesn’t), that “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady” (patriarchal implications of the title noted, not excused) was written as a ballet – which might explain the, uh, functional track titles – in a style Mingus described as “ethnic folk-dance music”, and it’s regarded as the first jazz album to utilise overdubbing. So, even in a fairly experimental genre, this sounds like it should be a far-out experience.

“Track A – Solo Dancer” , kicks off the album with a lithe, rasping, sultry swagger, almost like a simultaneous musical evocation of New Orleans and New York, astonishingly arranged by Mingus, full of discordant, widescreen harmonies. On this album jazz gets tight but loose: the melodies are so complex that they must have been rigorously scripted and sculpted, yet the musicianship remains sweaty with human interaction. The album’s highlight for me is the cumbersomely titled, utterly insane 18 minute odyssey “Mode D – Trio And Group Dancers / Mode E – Single Solos And Group Dance / Mode F – Group And Solo Dance”. It offers sudden, jarring outbreaks of flamenco guitar (contributed by Jay Berliner, who would later back Van Morrison on “Astral Weeks”), rampaging piano a la “Blue Rondo A La Turk”, and, once, twice, three times it builds from a sleepy, slow motion shuffle into a flailing frenzy of exploding brass and percussion. I’ve not heard an album like it: it commands, heck, it arrests the attention throughout its duration, and woe betide any listener who thinks they can chop this one into bite size pieces.

CHARLES MINGUS SEXTET WITH ERIC DOLPHY Cornell 1964 (Blue Note/EMI)

These recently rediscovered tapes were recorded at a concert that barely existed outside the memories of those in attendance. Despite having been missing for over four decades they’ve turned up in remarkably good condition, with fluctuating treble levels during the mammoth half-hour “Meditations” the only real sign of neglect.

The concert opens with Jaki Byard’s solo piano rendition of his own “ATFW You”. His casual yet kinetic playing is show-off stuff (can you shred on a piano?), working in a quote from “English Country Garden”, but no less impressive for it. Mingus follows that with a bass showcase constructed from Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”, notable for its almost throwaway, artistry, yet you can practically hear the physical effort involved in the bending and plucking and thwacking. The impish, cheeky “Fables Of Faubus” receives a Zepplinesque workout that stops just shy of the half-hour mark, with suggestions of “Yankee Doodle”, “God Save The Queen” and “Old Man River” woven into the text, the musicians yelling at each other as they tumble downriver on crests of barely-controlled chaos. However, it’s when constrained within relatively well-defined songforms that the band really shine. “Take The “A” Train” is glorious here, whipped along by white-knuckled molten improvisation that always seems to be a hairsbreadth away from derailing, and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, perhaps sitting a little incongruously in this setlist, is similarly treasurable in ways that, for this listener, the 31 minutes of “Meditations” are not.

Writing as a jazz neophyte, I find “Cornell 1964” something of a mixed bag, lacking the cohesion of Mingus’ best studio work. Of great historical import, certainly, but just a little daunting at times.

CHARLIE MINGUS Blues & Roots (Atlantic)

The genesis of this 1959 session lay in a request by producer Nesuhi Ertegun for an entire album in the bluesy style of Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”.  The response was an earthy, swaggering beast of an album. Mingus heads up a nonet, but he drives it in an entirely different direction to that in which Miles Davis marshalled the similarly-sized forces of his “Birth Of The Cool” band a decade or so earlier. Instead of that ensemble’s scripted, clockwork precision, Mingus’ musicians splurge on a raucous, rude, exuberant, blaring music that, on one level, renders each track barely distinguishable from its neighbours, but on another crackles with so much vitality that it’s hardly a criticism.

Opening with a call to devotion that’d have atheists flocking to church, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is a chaotic jumble of rhythms, melodies and time signatures that rapidly builds to an incantatory momentum, only mildly dissipated by a sax ‘n’ handclapping ‘n’ yelling breakdown. “Cryin’ Blues” wails in exactly the fashion advertised by its title, and “Moanin’” works up into a powerful, steaming frenzy. “My Jelly Roll Soul”, conceived, in Mingus’ words, as “an impression of or afterthoughts on Jelly Roll (Morton)’s forms and soul”, is all swagger, flash and wide-boy charm, yet somehow manages to avoid being obnoxious despite for all that. “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too” closes the set with a breathless, frenzied collision of tumbling tempos and demented spy themes, all urged on by the bassist bandleader’s hoarse yelling.

If “Blues & Roots” can be criticised, it’s because there’s not a great deal to distinguish each excellent piece from what surrounds it. It’s an album that creates a sustained mood of experimentation (no wonder Mingus’ compositions are published by an organisation called Jazz Workshop), rather than one that attempts to lead the listener on a delicately modulated emotional journey. Atlantic’s current vinyl issue displays absolutely no audiophile pretensions but sounds fine, crackling with the vitality this music really needs.

 CHARLES MINGUS Mingus Ah Um (Columbia)

As a Mingus starter pack this 1959 album is probably unbeatable, containing inspired performances of key tunes from the bassist’s catalogue. The opener “Better Git It In Your Soul” is one of them: a rollicking free-for-all celebration of the gospel music that dominated Mingus’ early years, it’s one of the most joyous pieces of music I know, his exhortations driving the band onwards through its exhilarating, switchbacking melody. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, also known as “Theme For Lester Young” in honour of the recently deceased saxophonist, is a sharply contrasting study in languid calm. The album’s other big moment is “Fables Of Faubus”, named after the anti-integration Kansas governor.  Although lacking lyrics – either because they hadn’t been written at the time of this recording or because of record company jitters, depending which version of the story you believe – Mingus’ feelings for the titular figure are nonetheless apparent from the piece’s musical clowning. Other, perhaps less lauded, highlights include the sinister “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, “Self-Portrait In Three Colours” (written, but not used, for John Cassavetes’ directorial debut “Shadows”) and the braying bebop of “Bird Calls”.

This album was my first experience of Sony’s Legacy Vinyl series, and based on this evidence alone it seemed like a more eclectic and quality-conscious reissue programme than Universal’s Back To Black. The sticker blurb is more encouraging than the usual vague PR puff, and it’s almost heartening to read phrases such as “nothing sounds as good and as warm as a vinyl recording” and “the warmth and nuance that only vinyl can offer” on the front of product from a company that attempted to obliterate the format a quarter of a century or so ago. Whilst this is actually a rather fine-sounding record – nowhere near the quality routinely achieved by more specialised vinyl reissue concerns such as Classic, Mobile Fidelity or Speakers Corner, but certainly too good to make into a clock or a fruit bowl – others in this series (Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut, Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”) have fallen far short of this standard.        

 CHARLIE MINGUS Oh Yeah (Atlantic)

For me, this 1962 release is the point where the exuberant experimentation of “Blues & Roots” curdles into parody and novelty. Mingus should be praised for operating outside his comfort zone here, I suppose, playing only piano and singing throughout, although his efforts at both pursuits perhaps only emphasise why jazz history records him primarily as a bassist. His lyrics are hardly more profound than the “shouts, roars, mumblings, falsetto keenings and other vocal eruptions” (to quote Nat Hentoff’s sleeve note) that found their way into his previous recordings. He seems to have so little to say of personal importance that it’s tempting to treat his singing on tunes such as “Devil Woman” as another musical instrument, rather than an effort at verbal communication.

 “Oh Yeah” isn’t without the odd moment of splendour. “Hog Callin’ Blues”, for example, sounds like the root of “II B.S.”, found on 1963’s “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus”, albeit in more streamlined form without the barnyard animal impersonations that smother it here. And Roland Kirk adds all kinds of gaudy tonal colour throughout, performing on such unusual instruments as siren, manzello and strich. However, “Oh Yeah” strays too often towards the half-formed and bizarre.  On “Passions Of A Man” Mingus mutters in some undocumented foreign tongue against an eerie, unsettling undercurrent. No piece straddles the stupid/serious divide more (un)comfortably than “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me”: as social satire it’s hardly Country Joe & The Fish, let alone The Bonzo Dog Band, and its keening blues isn’t exactly my idea of groundbreaking jazz either.

For all its perceived musical inadequacies “Oh Yeah” has, as with “Blues & Roots”, at least received another unpretentious but excellent vinyl pressing from Atlantic.

CHARLES MINGUS Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Speakers Corner)

 

Originally released in 1963, "Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus" largely consisted of retitled developments of works from the bassist's existing canon. However, this ethnic folk-dance music (as the sleeve describes it) spectacular isn't exactly the sound of an artist treading water.

               

Mingus' opening salvo on "II B.S." fair boxes the listener about the ears, but even this is ill preparation for the brawling, brassy accumulation of the band proper. Practically a jazz orchestra (even though Mingus considered the 11-piece ensemble used on these dates a small group by his standards) they're arranged to fearsome effect, boiling to a squally, squealing climax. That band includes - quelle surprise - Eric Dolphy and guitarist Jay Berliner, the latter later to play on Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks". Mingus' bass rings thunderously out under the somewhat unsteady ballad "I X Love", and Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and "Theme For Lester Young" (a.k.a. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") sway slowly and sensuously. "Better Get Hit In Yo' Soul", in all its incarnations, might be Mingus' theme tune, a joyous, riotous test of just how fast it's possible to swing in 6/8 before the notes come crashing off the staves. Awesome, especially in its virtuoso handclapping interlude, Mingus leads it off into the distance as a more sedate, foursquare stomp. "Hora Decubitus" might well mean "at bedtime" but there'll be no sleep 'til Hammersmith at least with this blazing rave-up closing this frequently astonishing album.

               

Although potentially superseded by a recent 45rpm reissue promising even greater fidelity, there's nothing shabby about Speakers Corner's work here; this is a cavernous-sounding record.

CHARLES MINGUS Mingus At Antibes (Atlantic)

Description: mingusatantibesThis double album, first released in 1976, presents Charles Mingus’ performance at the 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival, the bassist leading a quintet that included Eric Dolphy and, on one number, guest pianist Bud Powell.

Tunes such as “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, a jazz reconstruction of the titular religious experience, have the same careening gusto as their studio counterparts, now with added (and deserved) outbreaks of spontaneous applause. Dannie Richmond’s drumming on this helter-skelter folk-gospel-jazz number mixes timekeeping with a kind of free-form assault and battery. For me “What Love?”, Mingus’ own reworking of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, degenerates into an indulgent duet between Mingus’ bass and Dolphy’s bass clarinet; it’s hard to tell whether the audience whistling is expressing discontent or approval, although their applause at the return of something like a tune is pleasingly unambiguous. Bud Powell sits in at the piano during “I’ll Remember April”, growling along with his own solo somewhat distractingly. “Better Git Hit In Your Soul”, one of Mingus’ most famous compositions, closes the set in fine style. Played with switchbacking verve, its freewheeling, handclapping organised chaos allows the quintet to sound like a much larger organisation, culminating in a duel between Mingus on piano and the octopus-armed Richmond.

Not exactly hi-fi, “Mingus At Antibes” sounds more like a really good bootleg, its strident, unforgiving sonics and blunt scissor editing making it a hard listen. Given that baseline, it’s almost irrelevant that the current vinyl issue is a Scorpio product, as that company’s tardy approach to sound quality isn’t the limiting factor for once. At least they’ve done a nice job with the glossy gatefold sleeve, though.

CHARLIE MINGUS Tijuana Moods (RCA)

Carrying the despised billing of “Charlie” on the cover, this album was recorded in 1957 but remained unreleased until 1962. The bassist’s own sleevenote calls it “the best record I ever made”, which, considering some of his work in the interim – “Mingus Ah Um” and “Blues & Roots”, for instance – is saying something.

It doesn’t surpass those masterpieces for me, unfortunately. Inspired by a visit to the titular border town Mingus made with drummer Danny Richmond whilst attempting to outrun some emotional complications (“I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her”), this is rambling, ragged medium-group jazz, albeit of a kind that soaks up the border town’s influences like lime in tequila. “Dizzy’s Moods” is a development of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You” – so far, so conventional – but “Ysabel’s Table Dance” adds flamenco, castanets, striptease and yelling, stretching the idea of jazz into new and bizarre shapes, a kind of sleazy precursor to the gospel-inspired “Better Git It in Your Soul”.  “Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians)” reflects the diversity of music the eponymous entertainers played as they followed Mingus and Richmond through the streets, “everything from barrelhouse to stiff attempts at the blues”.  The album’s shabby chic is further emphasised by the cover photo of a cigarette-smoking dancer leaning against a battered Wurlitzer.

The only vinyl version of “Tijuana Moods” currently in print is a Scorpio. In the tradition of this shadowy, anonymous enterprise, its cover art and labels make some effort to approximate those of an original issue, whilst its sonics, indifferently mastered and pressed from sources of undisclosed provenance, do not. It wouldn’t surprise me if it had been cut straight from a CD.

CHARLES MINGUS The Clown (Atlantic)

This 1957 album is billed, on the back cover at least, as being by The Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop. It opens with the glorious “Haitian Fight Song”, which the bassist would later re-record under the titles “Hog Callin’ Blues” and “II B.S.”, a brooding, blaring thing spoiling for aggro, the band making an unusually frenetic, powerful sound for a quintet. Mingus characterised “Blue Cee” as “a standard blues”, his first on record, in fact, and that’s about it, to be honest; no warping of genre conventions to be found here. Somewhat more complex and invested, “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird” is a tribute in kind to Mingus’ mentor Charlie Parker. The one piece here that most sounds like the outcome of workshop experimentation is the none-more-beatnik title track, the group playing against an improvised narration by “New York radio bard” (as the sleevenotes describe him) Jean Shepard, a rumination on the destructive relationship between art, artists and audience. 

The current vinyl issue of “The Clown” is a product of the shady Scorpio concern, meaning that it reproduces period-correct packaging – cover art, sleevenotes, labels – but doesn’t extend such attention to detail to the sonics, which could charitably be described as reasonable but rough, and, being from undisclosed sources, don’t discount the possibility that he record could’ve just been cut from a CD.

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