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Clues and Roots: Tracing the Genius of Mingus


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When I first heard the music of Charles Mingus it was if I had been struck violently from underneath, yet the subsequent fall was a welcome descent embodied by contemplation and a strange sense of satisfaction. The record was Blues and Roots, and the moments of discovery in the listening journey since have been few and far between.

The function of the bass in small ensembles has always been of great interest to me. Bass players, the really good ones, often have a certain mentality that borders on academic, but resonating with soul and a sort of street sensibility that can only come with an understanding of both rhythm and texture. The opening riff heard in “Haitian Fight Song” is an instance where the bass is more than the backbone of an already strong and capable body. It is also the core. From the opening notes, Mingus takes the music on a wild and varied course, and it is his riotous, relentless bass playing that gives timeless life to this singular composition.

We have all had such experiences with music, and we remember them well. It is as if all definitions of music have been redlined from our vocabularies and a new, groundbreaking term has taken its place. We then take on the personal, internal task of defining music anew, for our own selves and for understanding.

Charles Mingus was that type of musician who stimulated audiences on a number of levels. The sheer force of his playing was enough to make a man uncomfortable. His lively and deeply animated personality found little trouble in maintaining the interest of even the most passive of spectators. Hearing his music incites further investigation.

Musicians who can boast of longevity, or are able to beat the times and continue to create for decades, more often than not have shared another important attribute as fundamental as the talent for creating “catchiness”: the ability to put together a band. It was especially necessary for Mingus, the quintessential “alpha” musician, to build his ensembles with an awareness of personalities and that the players would have a genuine interest in his compositions. The selection of Mal Waldron, a young pianist who venerated the inherent efficiency of blues and the vitality of Monk’s progressive writing in equal sums, was a critical move in the early stages of Mingus’ music. It is arguably Waldron – and in a lesser sense trombonist Eddie Bert and saxophonist George Barrow – who truly brought early compositions like “Fight Song” and “Love Chant” to life. It is Waldron’s knack for seamless transition and arrhythmic delay that make these tunes feel like standards reinvented.

1955 marked a turning point for Mingus. By that time not only had he broken completely free from exclusive duty as a sideman, his compositions were coming into their own and as a result, were beginning to be taken very seriously. The melodic structure of his music bore only the thinnest traces of those musicians with whom he had cut his teeth; musicians like Charlie Parker, Gillespie, and Monk. Indeed, the paramount influence on Mingus’ writing was Duke Ellington, and elements of his music could be heard throughout the life of Mingus’ compositions. But Mingus held a key interest decidedly apart from those of Duke’s, at least that can be examined on record: an affinity for the small ensemble. It was in the environment of the small ensemble that Mingus would shape his sound and experiment with grafts of melody and such song-traits as counterpoint. Even compared to today’s brewing cauldron of exploratory music, the music we most closely identify with Mingus is largely experimental and is very much the cornerstone to what would become “the” avant-garde.

Under the designation of the Mingus Jazz Workshop, Waldron, Bert, and Barrow joined Mingus with the underrated and under-recorded drummer Willie Jones for a few performances at New York’s Café Bohemia in late 1955. There are moments in the Bohemia performances that neatly summarize where Mingus was heading. Without shedding his kinship with the standards, he summarily infuses his own style and an unshakable sense of rebellion into otherwise gold-plated numbers.

The still young Debut Records, owned by Mingus and Max Roach, offered the opportunity to record and sell such performances, and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity for the new compositions to circulate commercially. The Charles Mingus Quintet Plus Max Roach is that opportunity realized and it is here, arguably, that Mingus the composer and leader can first be heard breaking free of the customs most jazz musicians still held as doctrine.

Unlike his disciplined counterparts, Mingus used the small ensemble as an arena through which his compositions could be practiced and restructured. For instance, the “Haitian Fight Song” of 1955 is nowhere near as aggressive as its later Atlantic Records counterpart. “Finesse” instead assumes the role of “attack”. The horn melody is the same as its predecessor, but played over a slow-medium tempo. One gets the impression that Mingus was auditioning the tune for the first time in front of an audience, just to hear how the emotion inherent in its changes plays out. Solos are at a minimum, but at no expense of the music. Bert and Barrow approach the melody with elegance, as opposed to the rowdiness that was to later come from Shafi Hadi and Jimmy Knepper on the definitive version.

In contrast, the standards “I’ll Remember April” and Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” are approached with anything but a sense of routine. The latter’s changes are used as a gateway to the band’s talents, and it is hard to imagine Bert ever sounding better. “A Foggy Day”, a shadow of Gershwin’s original, totes a brazenly comical “uh-oh” head, the two notes of which repeat themselves frequently through Barrow’s tenor.

Mingus at the Bohemia, the counterpart to Plus Max Roach (both records are from the same gig), features two Mingus originals and more re-workings of standards. “All the Things You C#” combines “All the Things You Are” and “Prelude in C# Minor” for a workable string of changes the musicians can play with. There are also tributes. In creating a miniature monument to Monk (“Jump Monk”), Mingus in no way surrenders his own writing style. The number calls attention to Monk just enough: in the title itself and in Waldron’s off-center cadence. And only enough to administer admiration but never to copy or emulate the inspiration. Like “Jump Monk,” “Work Song” maintains a lively beat and optimistic changes that are characteristic of the best of the composer’s works.

The Bohemia performances are crucial documents in any study of Mingus’ development as musician and leader. Soon after, a sizable discography would develop and nearly every entry would stand on its own as a singular moment in the very lineage of jazz music.

By 1964, Mingus had an amazing string of records under his belt. The Clown, Blues and Roots, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Mingus Ah Um, and Tijuana Moods were in wide circulation and continued to receive almost unvarying acclaim among critics and fans alike. But if those club dates in 1955 were genetic forerunners to those amazing records, then the spring of 1964 is equally significant in the evolution of Mingus’ music.

On April 10th of that year, Mingus kicked off the extensive, historic European tour that still has musicologists today researching its revolving set list and the seemingly immediate creative growth of a single ensemble. The group’s first performance was, just days before landing in Europe, at the New York City Town Hall, and two numbers from that show comprise The Town Hall Concert, originally issued on Mingus’ Jazz Workshop label. The sextet consisted of considerable talent: Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan on reeds, Johnny Coles on trumpet, pianist Jaki Byard, and the leader’s soulmate, drummer Dannie Richmond.

“So Long Eric” and “Praying for Eric” are epic examples of this group’s strengths, and the disc’s only shortcoming is the absence of the three other numbers played that evening. Dolphy’s flute on the latter piece is a searching, delicate balance to the ensemble’s fiery outbursts. Additionally, this version of “So Long Eric” is perhaps the definitive one, particularly for Johnny Coles impressive playing. And Jaki Byard’s blues motifs and sustained ingenuity on the keys make this set of music further worthy all of the praise it has received throughout the years.

This band went on to play a total of 11 dates throughout Western Europe, most of which were recorded and released in some form or another. After making history with this group in little less than a month’s time, Eric Dolphy made the decision to permanently relocate to Europe.

Shortly after his return, Mingus got underway with his famed California quintet of the same year. Coles was indefinitely absent due to illness and Dolphy had remained back in Europe. In a sort of homecoming, the group played a short series at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Alto saxophonist John Handy returned to fill the second sax spot, and an obscure but immensely capable pianist by the name of Jane Getz took the temporary chair of Byard’s. Two of the tunes they played, “New Fables” and “Meditation (For a Pair of Wire Cutters),” became the contents of a Debut Records release, Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop.

The “importance” of Right Now is more historic than revolutionary. June of 1964 was the end of an era for Mingus. The short-lived sextet had run its course over a comparatively short period in Europe. Some feel that his writing and arranging had stagnated by this point, in terms of new offerings. But Clifford Jordan had contributed some of the finest tenor work of his career, and certainly for any of the many Mingus groups.

A note about Clifford Jordan, but first about another, equally important Mingus frontman, Charlie Mariano. When one listens to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, it is not so difficult to determine that within the boundaries of those hallmark recordings lay the best that was ever to come from Mariano. His solos, particularly on “Solo Dancer” and in “I X Love” of Mingus x 5, reveal a musician who has unleashed all of his predispositions with a matchless approach to his instrument.

Like Mariano, Jordan is undoubtedly under the influence of Mingus; nowhere else on record does this Clifford Jordan play the tenor saxophone with more imagination and simultaneous abandon than he does on the 1964 recordings. Listening to “New Fable” from the Right Now disc is to hear Clifford Jordan for everything that he was as a musician.

While Jordan went on to lead his own groups after his time with Mingus, Mingus himself experienced an intermission of sorts with his music. In late June of that year, only weeks after parting ways with the group, word came to the States that Eric Dolphy had died from complications with diabetes. Word has it that Mingus never truly recovered from that loss. And with a few exceptions, he almost completely suspended the performance of Dolphy-inspired compositions, such as “So Long Eric.”

Mingus resumed a fully active stance in 1970, further developing his old repertoire and making time for new ideas and, of course, experimenting with and expanding his knack for organizing an ensemble.

While the examples above serve as fine starting points for those interested in pursuing Charles Mingus’ complex and varied output, it should be added that virtually any recording prior to 1965 holds its share of stimulating kernels. The Bohemia dates and the concerts immediately flanking the European tour of 1964 stand out possibly for their existence outside of Mingus’ more popular canon. While they are not lauded the same as recordings like Mingus Ah Um or Tijuana Moods, they stand as equally essential documents in any survey of the man’s music. And there’s plenty of hip-shaking to follow. Enjoy the journey.

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