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Artist Profiles

Thinking Mingus

By Published: February 15, 2006

Finally—and I always thought this was the Mingus master-stroke—after 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" too—give 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 voices—and 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 picture—it'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 himself—a pace totally apart from the scene around him.

Then go back to "Pithecanthropus" and this time follow the progress of the ape-protagonist (the London jazz-man's ancestor?). It's easy to imagine the whole scope of human evolution being told in "Pithecanthropus", complete with its starts and stops, failures and dead ends, triumphs and redirections. Every stage punctuated by the same theme of violent upheaval on the verge of chaos, but each time coalescing triumphantly onto a whole new level. It's a story with the promise of something transcendent, accompanied by the ever-present threat of total annihilation. This is Mingus.

With "Pithecanthropus"—as with his "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" and its sudden flamenco guitar interruptions and Spanish horn riffs (representing, as he said, the Spanish Inquisition)—the questions seem to be: Does mankind learn anything in the transition from one stage to the other? Or will we keep pushing things to their limit until the time comes that we do it one time too many, and the whole thing falls into real chaos? Must we endure total annihilation before reaching some kind of redemption?

Or maybe he's telling us that it's only our own fears—those mistaken expectations again—that make us think that one of these days we really will sail our ships right off the edge of the world. Through it all, there's Mingus—the Big Man dancing along the world's edge with his music, leaping around at the very boundaries and peering down into the blackness every now and then, to look back up and report to us not only what he's seen there, but that he (and we) haven't fallen in. At least, not yet.

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