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Thinking Mingus

By Published: February 15, 2006

Thinking Mingus

All of which is a long setup for the answer to that simple little question: why do I like Mingus?

Maybe the answer is better related by imagining a scene that might have been played out by the musicians performing Mingus' music. Picture this, as you think about which Mingus LP or CD to listen to next:

Some of the players sit, some stand around on the stage, as if carelessly thrown there by an indifferent chessplayer or puppeteer. The pianist is slouched over the keyboard, his spine slack as he glances off to the side at the drinking audience, sleepily scanning the smoky crowd—maybe he's looking for someone he knows, maybe he's looking for tonight's new lady friend, maybe he's thinking about what he ate for lunch. Hornplayers talk quietly, occasionally punctuating the conversation by swinging a trumpet or a saxophone at the end of an extended arm; the drummer watches the pianist's attention wander, and silently wills him back from all distractions beyond the keyboard.

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 breath—as 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 listen—and 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 go—this 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 floor—but 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 up—they 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 move—from 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, man—this 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!"

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