This is not a performing seal act. This isn’t even Ornette on violin. Mingus Plays Piano is no gimmick or avant-garde foolery, because Mingus can really play piano.
Really play piano. On the Atlantic album Oh Yeah his piano fronts a band including Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a rollicking set; his comping there is competent but undistinguished. Nothing prepared the world for Mingus Plays Piano, except, perhaps, the unpredictable genius of Mr. Mingus himself.
If this was even just a seven-and-a-half minute album, it would be worth the price for the opening cut, “Myself When I Am Real.” To what can Mingus’ piano playing be compared? “Myself When I Am Real” sounds like Debussy plays Bill Evans, or maybe it’s the other way around. The piece is tender and emotional, as strong in its own way as The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady but a good bit more introverted. “Myself When I Am Real” is like a peek into the quiet core of what makes other Mingus records so comprehensively successful. For all the clowning and braggadocio, at the center of Mingus’ art is the soul of a man keenly aware of the joy and suffering that are both inescapable in life. “Myself When I Am Real” is a stunningly beautiful statement of that awareness.
Not to say that the rest of the album is a letdown. “I Can’t Get Started” is precise and wistful, “Body and Soul” springingly embellished. “Roland Kirk’s Message” takes upon itself the intriguing task of hailing an accomplished reedman with no reeds, or horns, at all. Leave it to Mingus, ladies and gentlemen! The minor blues opens with a bit of Ellingtonian fanfare and does its job with a few progressions set against trills (Kirk’s multi-instrumentalism?) and deft shifts of mood (Kirk’s eclecticism?). “It’s not like playin’ at home by yourself,” Mingus says then, but just snorts derisively when somebody (Bob Thiele?) responds, “Well, what can we do for you?” What could they do for him? Peel back the layers of his soul? He was doing that part of it just fine.
“Memories of You” is fine, but it’s a breather between the fascinating “Roland Kirk’s Message” and the meditative musing of “She’s Just Miss Popular Hybrid.” Then comes a highlight of the set, “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues,” which, of course, became a staple of Mingus’ Jordan / Dolphy European tour band in the coming year. Without the horns it is less jaunty and more profound, with a fragile meditative feel. Mingus sings a fragment of a lyric half under his breath at one point; rather than the gospellish egging on of other players that his vocalizing represents on other discs, here it signifies his total involvement in his art. And art it is.
“Meditations for Moses” is full of foreboding and plaintive restiveness. It bears little resemblance to the magisterial “Meditations” variations Mingus would record in 1964, but earns its own place in the canon. Like many of these pieces, it starts out as one thing and, by a series of tempo and mood shifts, ends up another, with a pianistic nod to the flamenco guitar Mingus was so fond of in between. The epitome of this most Mingusian technique of shifting moods is the finale, “Compositional Theme Story: Medleys, Anthems and Folklore.” While less nakedly emotional than “Myself When I Am Real,” Mingus’ performance here is no less magisterial. This piece, by the way, contains a riff or two that did land in the bravura “Meditations” of the 1964 tour.
Mingus Plays Piano is one of the most beautiful recordings, period. It is a on its own terms perhaps a more personal statement than even the masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. While indulging in absolutely none of the ear-straining superficial ugliness of much of the “new jazz” music of the period, it manages to attain to the personal exposure and honesty to which many New Thing-ers aspired. Anything by Mingus is worth hearing; Mingus Plays Piano should be in the first rank so far from a mere novelty as to be one of this great artist’s finest hours.