Then there's the Big Man, himself. Face nearly buried between the broad shoulders hiding behind the bass, he commands the scene if only by the sheer bulk of the instrument that seems to be holding him up. This is Mingus.
The Big Man takes a long, slow breathas if exhausted just at the thought of what he is about to embark upon, or tired of bringing the same sermon yet again to a crowd of people who just won't listenand without looking up or making a sound, somehow he cues the musicians to snap to and remember why they are here.
The players begin. The pace is slow at first, as if the curtain is still rising on a play already in progress or as if the band is still approaching from a block away. The musicians sound hesitant; they know the song but seem not quite sure where it's going to gothis time. Maybe they're just a bit apprehensive of where it might take them, but they're ready for the ride anyway. What've they got to lose? They know that wherever the Big Man takes them, it's bound to be a hell of a ride.
The musicians soon shed their hesitancy, and one-by-one they begin to fall into a pattern together. But still holding it somewhat in check, like a puppy on a short leash. They know they're being set up, that Mingus is the one pulling them along; they are the puppy; they're the puppets who are fully aware of their strings. They follow his direction, but won't take their eyes off him just yet. And the music follows.
Then, without warning, puppet strings and leashes are suddenly dropped. You expect to hear the hollow clatter of puppets falling to the wooden stage in complete disarray, or the frenzied clatter of startled puppy claws on the floorbut instead, you look around through the noise and see that each one of the players is standing on his own. The puppets are all in complete control. Impossible, but there it is. And they're swinging! This is Mingus.
The initial shock is really just a result of the listener's own mistaken expectations. Sometimes there is a very definite pattern barely hiding beneath the surface of what some might consider "noise", or "chaos". The players aren't the ones being set upthey were in on the joke right from the start. They play the straight man; the audience takes the fall guy's role. And Mingus is engineering the whole scene, choreographing every movefrom the arrangement of the musicians on the stage to the arrangement of the notes they play, even to the emotions and reactions of the audience itself.
The next step is for the individuals to step out, each soloing in turn, or weaving several solos into and around each other; it's their time to show that each of them is as much a part of that act as any of the others. It's as if each solo is saying, "Listen, manthis is what I can do. Ain't nobody around can do it better! But if you think this is good, let me step aside now so you can see what my buddy over there can do. Take it, brother!"
Finallyand I always thought this was the Mingus master-strokeafter several rhythmic and melodic elements have been laid out by soloists and pairings of instruments, he melds and weaves them together into a cohesive body of group-solo. "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul" is a perfect example (especially the version on MingusMingusMingusMingusMingus). "Pithecanthropus Erectus" toogive it a chance, let it take you. One by one, the horn lines in "Pithecanthropus" combine into an intricately entwined chorus that speaks with so many concurrent voices that I once tried listening just to count the instrumental voicesand lost count every time. Maybe there's fewer than half a dozen voices in the mix, but somehow, when a Mingus-led group plays, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its parts. Greater even than the product of its parts. This is Mingus.
Another stroke of the Big Man's genius is the visuals rolled into the music. But his music does more than just paint a pictureit's the script for a movie. A movie bigger than any cinema screen. It's proof of the complete control he could wield even in the midst of the most frenetic improvisation. That might sound self-contradictory, but check out how he makes "Foggy Day in London" his own. Listen to it with your eyes closed. Picture the little jazz-man walking alone through the streets of a crowded city, hands stuffed inside the pockets of a rumpled trenchcoat, surrounded by people in a hurry, car horns blasting, sirens, running feet, high heels clicking past, snarled traffic jams alternating with speeding cars, stop-and-go noise, stop-and-go, stop-and-go. And through it all, here's our little jazz-man bopping his way along, oblivious to the whole city frenzy. Nothing is going to break the pace he's set for himselfa pace totally apart from the scene around him.