Charles Mingus The Great Concert of Charles Mingus
For all that it has survived over the past century, jazz music can be a fragile thing. Its reliance on improvisation and near-telepathic communion between group members means that for something truly transcendent to occur, the stars must be aligned in a way they rarely are. If we add in the hope that such a magical event might be heard by more than a select few, things get even more elusive, as now we must be sure that tape machines are running and microphones are working.
All this musing is my way of noting how improbable it is that this utterly wonderful music played by Charlie Mingus and one of his strongest groups in a Parisian theatre fully 40 years ago is here, preserved on a five-inch circle of plastic (two of them, actually) for all to hear. The recording of this concert, made on April 19, 1964, has been released before, on several labels of varying legitimacy. But here, Verve and Universal Jazz France have meticulously restored the original tapes, including two songs that were previously held back due to recording defects, and reissued them with the respect they deserve. Even for those who have heard the previous incomplete releases, as well as other shows from this much-documented European tour, this version is essential.
At the outset, few would have expected this concert to be a classic. During the previous show, Mingus's trumpeter Johnny Coles had collapsed with a stomach ulcer and was rushed to the hospital. Mingus, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, multi- reedist Eric Dolphy, drummer Dannie Richmond, and pianist Jaki Byard, had to soldier on, dealing not only with the emotional stress of Coles's illness but also with the resulting gaping hole in the band's arrangements. Somehow, the now-quintet managed to pull together a monster performance, cathartic and emotionally charged.
The show opens with the previously-unreleased piano solo "A.T.F.W. (Art Tatum Fats Waller)." Although the microphones crackle a couple of times, the recording quality is just fine in this release, and it's a very good thing this recording was rescued from obscurity. Those who never quite got the measure of Jaki Byard will be astonished by this performance, a 4-minute gallop through jazz piano history of undeniable rough-hewn brilliance. Mingus's laconic introduction of the group (including Johnny Coles's trumpet, perched on a flight case) leads into "So Long Eric," whose title actually refers to Dolphy's departure for Europe but which foreshadows the musician's tragic death just months later.
The epigrammatic theme is introduced on bass and picked up by the group for a few bars before leading into a deep swing pocket that jumps into double-time during a blazing solo by Jordan. Byard's solo starts with a near-quote from "St. Louis Blues" and continues in that vein until Dolphy comes in with a fascinating solo in his inimitable, angularly free style that contrasts so bracingly with Jordan's more orthodox hard bop on subsequent traded fours. Previous releases of this concert substituted a version of this tune from the previous night's show due to glitches on the master tape; this reissue has restored the April 19th version so that the concert's continuity is maintained.
The blues arrive next in the form of "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk," with piquant harmony phrasings from the horns. At 14 minutes, this is actually the shortest of the 5 full-group tracks here, which speaks to how far the musicians were stretching out in Coles's absence. Jordan's lovely solo is a highlight on this more old-fashioned tune, which also features Dolphy on bass clarinet. A half-hour rendition of "Fables of Faubus" goes well beyond the classic "sanitized" version on Columbia's Mingus Ah Um. Retaining the shouted indictment of segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, this version makes no doubt as to Mingus's political frame of mind. Byard's and Jordan's satirical quotations of patriotic tunes during the tune's many breakdown sections help drive the point home with devastating power.
The evening's second set begins with Mingus's masterful solo on "Sophisticated Lady," with sensitive accompaniment by Byard. Mingus plays like a heartbroken prizefighter, a fascinating mixture of muscular pugilism and plaintive sensitivity. "Parkeriana" weaves several of Bird's themes into a choppy but often exhilarating suite. Byard's playing is particularly delightful here; the band drops out in the middle of the performance and, spurred on by Mingus's encouraging hoots and hollers ("go back to D or something, man", he can be heard suggesting at one point) the pianist paints himself into corners several times only to escape with a humorous bit of stride of vaudeville.
Before the final tune, Mingus treats the audience to a typical bit of musing on the possibility of racist concentration camps popping up in the U.S. and thanks George Wein for sponsoring the group's European tour (but not without a swipe at the breakneck pace12 shows across the continent in 16 days). The humor is genuine, but so is the heartfelt plea for an end to racial hatred contained in "Meditations (Or For a Pair of Wire Cutters)," which features some beautiful flute from Dolphy in the intro (he switches to bass clarinet later). Byard's solo here is as impressionistic as earlier ones were exuberant, and he provides beautiful accompaniment to Mingus's achingly poignant bowing. Dolphy soon joins back in on flute for a gorgeous bit of rhapsodic chamber jazz that closes out the tune and, alas, the recording (there was an encore, but the tape machines had been turned off by then).
Simply put, this recording is not only one of Mingus's most towering achievements, but is also a testimony to the power of jazz music to find beauty and power in the most dire situations. As a lengthy (and all-too-rare) example of Dolphy's mature genius, as well as a revelatory glimpse into Byard's immense talent, it is essential. These men were giants, and the heights they reached on a spring night in Paris so many years ago are still rarely equaled. Hearing them play now is a pleasure, to be sure; but it is also a privilege.
1. A.T.F.W. (Art Tatum Fats Waller), 2. Presentation Of Musicians: Johnny Coles' Trumpet, 3. So Long Eric, 4. Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk, 5. Fables Of Faubus
1. Sophisticated Lady, 2. Parkeriana, 3. Meditations On Integration (Or For a Pair of Wire Cutters)
Personnel: Charles Mingus, bass; Eric Dolphy, flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard, piano; Dannie Richmond, drums