Charles Mingus’ “Lost Album”

Cover_Mingus_RonnieScotts_cv1500

WAP 2022MINGUS: Introduction. Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue. Noddin’ Ya Head Blues. Mind-Readers’ Convention in Milano (a.k.a. Number 29). Fables of Faubus. The Man Who Never Sleeps. PARKER: Ko-Ko. BLACK-PURVIS: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In (a.k.a Pops). CHRISTINA-GOODMAN-MUNDY: Air Mail Special / Jon Faddis, tpt; Charles McPherson, a-sax; Bobby Jones, t-sax/cl; John Foster, pno/voc; Charles Mingus, bs; Roy Brooks, dm/musical saw / Resonance Records HCD-2043 (live: London, August 14-15, 1972)

Resonance Records, an independent jazz label owned and run by George Klabin and Zev Feldman, has become famous over the past few years for their releases of formerly lost jazz albums by Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk in addition to reissues of neglected material by Nat “King” Cole and Eric Dolphy. They now gives us a pair of live concerts by a sextet headed by Charles Mingus, who in addition to being one of the most formidable bassists in jazz history was also the music’s greatest composer. Yes, I said “greatest.” I receive album after album after album to review by so-called jazz “geniuses” writing their “innovative music,” and 99.9% of them can’t hold a candle to Mingus. I was privileged to have spent three years writing a book on Mingus and his music that was bought by Hal Leonard, underwent two years of editing, and then was sent back to me as “unpublishable” by them because I gave my personal opinions of his music. I thought that would have been evident after the first reading of my manuscript, but apparently they only discovered this once it was actually going to be published. The typeset pages of that book have been sitting in a bottom drawer of my computer desk ever since. (I was told by one of the editors that one reason for its final rejection was that Gunther Schuller took exception to my suggesting that a different sequence of the pieces Mingus wrote for Epitaph was not only possible but, from a programming standpoint, preferable to his.) But I’m very proud of the fact that I, and not Sue Mingus, Brian Priestly or Gunther Schuller, was finally able to obtain a performance of Mingus’ classically-written string quartet and get it on the air in America thanks to the good graces of classical activist Garrett McQueen. Sometimes it takes mavericks like us to fight the system and get some of the important artifacts of artists’ careers out to the general public.

According to annotator Brian Priestly, this London engagement was professionally recorded with the thought of producing an album for Columbia, which had recorded and released Mingus’ Philharmonic Hall concert that year, but in early 1973, while this concert was still being considered for release, Columbia’s president Clive Davis suddenly and unexpectedly ended the contracts of Mingus, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. The irony of this is that, shortly thereafter, Davis himself was fired by Columbia, yet the label did not re-sign any of these distinguished jazz artists. The handwriting was on the wall: after a relationship going back to 1939, when the then-new Columbia label (not to be confused with the Columbia Graphophone Company, which had produced records in the U.S. from 1903 until they were bought out by their British namesakes in the late 1920s) was launched by signing Benny Goodman away from RCA Victor and Count Basie away from Decca. Thirty-four years of jazz on the label included stints by Cootie Williams’ big band, Duke Ellington, and then, in the 1950s after jazz-loving Mitch Miller took over as A&R director, a whole series of great albums produced by former jazz baritone saxist Teo Macero. Columbia Records didn’t start releasing jazz albums again until the 1980s, when they signed Arthur Blythe and a few other artists. Mingus was lucky—his old friend at Atlantic Records, Neshuhi Ertegun, who had produced Mingus albums in the period 1959-1962, re-signed him to that label—but Jarrett had to go to ECM in Germany, and Coleman and Evans had to scramble to find domestic outlets for their recordings. Evans wound up with Milestone while Coleman, who had been with Impulse prior to his Columbia contract, ended up jumping between various labels (A&M/Horizon, Sub Rose, Bat, Barclay, Artists House, Antilles, Gramavision, Geffen, and Caravan of Dreams, among others).

It isn’t made completely clear in the liner notes who actually owned these tapes, Columbia, Ronnie Scott or Mingus himself, but even if it was the former I’m a little surprised that Ertegun didn’t try to make arrangements to release these performances on Atlantic. As you can see from the header to this review, although it was an eclectic mixture of older and newer material, it mostly leaned towards the former, and perhaps this made Atlantic less eager to produce this album at a time when Mingus was recording much new material, most of it superb, for them. Still, after Mingus’ sad, somewhat early death, it clearly would have been a nice gesture on the part of either Atlantic or Columbia to get this concert out  as a “memorial album,” yet it never happened.

This group that Mingus brought to London is, curiously, missing his regular drummer, Dannie Richmond, and this lineup also omits three musicians who became regulars in his band after he returned to the States, trumpeter Jack Walrath, tenor saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen, but it is a good one and very much in the Mingus tradition. In listening to these recordings, however, I wondered if they were recorded by Columbia engineers working in England or just by Ronnie Scott’s own in-house system. Scott, an excellent tenor saxist in his own right, had started his jazz club with much the same idea as Countess Nica von Königswarter, who recorded jam sessions live in her New York apartment; he wanted to capture jazz musicians live rather than in the recording studio, since as a performer himself he realized that live sessions often took the most chances and obtained the best results. Despite its clarity, the band is recorded very close to the microphone, which was more typical of Scott’s in-house work than Columbia’s.

The solos are all excellent, but this was typical of Mingus’ work at its best. Charles McPherson plays superbly, sometimes coming close to the experimental style of Eric Dolphy. In addition, trumpeter Jon Faddis, who also played with Mingus in his Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall concerts, is absolutely stupendous, rivaling the work that Ted Curson did with the Mingus-Dolphy band on their Candid sessions. In addition, pianist John Foster plays in his own wild and woolly manner. (His stint in the Mingus band came between Jaki Byard and Pullen.)

And, of course, there is always Mingus’ own fluid-tempo compositions. I wrote about these in depth in my unpublished book, and they remain remarkable even today, when almost no one plays works like this for one simple reason: they’re too difficult to pull together as compositions, particularly when you add the dimension of spontaneous improvisation. Only a group of musicians working together regularly over an extended period of time can come to grips with such music, which is one reason why Mingus had some problems getting the performance style he wanted in his ill-fated Town Hall “concert” of 1962 (actually an open rehearsal, but the hall’s promoters sold tickets on the basis of its being a concert) when the band included several musicians not attuned to his style of performance (Rolf Ericson, Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, Jimmy Cleveland, Zoot Sims, Pepper Adams etc.). Here, Orange Was the Color of Her Dress features a fantastic alto sax-bass duet that is a highlight in this album. All you so-called jazz “innovators” out there, take notice. This is what GREAT jazz composition and performance sounds like.

Noddin’ Ya Head Blues opens with a nice, long bass solo (nearly three and a half minutes) by the leader, featuring a lot of string tremolos, followed by pianist Foster contributing the vocal. (At the end, he says, “Thank you Mr. Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson!”) By and large, this is a bit of a musical “vacation” for the band, since they stick to one tempo and just play the blues. If I have any reservations about this group, it would be about drummer Roy Brooks, who plays pretty well but doesn’t have either the flexibility or the drive of Dannie Richmond, but Faddis takes it to a new level in his solo, and Foster is quite interesting (even throwing in a quote from Sentimental Journey just for laughs). Mingus’ second solo is much more creative than his first, and in the midst of it Brooks suddenly starts playing a musical saw, which adds a weird vibe to the performance.

Mind-Readers’ Conference in Milano, later played by the Mingus Big Band as Number 29, is yet another of the composer’s multi-tempo, multi-key pieces (sometimes played in two keys at once), and here drummer Brooks contributes some nice breaks, but the highlights of this track are the out-of-tempo, “outside” jazz excursions of Faddis and tenor saxist Bobby Jones. During McPherson’s alto solo, Mingus and Brooks somehow manage to come up with a Middle Eastern-sounding vibe by using modal harmonies and Mediterranean meters. Again: creativity on a high level. Thinking, and playing, outside the box. And of course, the most fascinating thing about these performances (as in most Mingus performances) is the way he can keep things moving, shifting and changing over long stretches of time. Mind-Readers is a half-hour long, but at no point does the listener feel bored and never once does the music lose its way or meander into music loops or other time-filling devices. All of the music here is substantive. At the 9:31 mark, he suddenly doubles the tempo, but surprisingly, this only lasts a few bars before a return to the original tempo (and beat). Around the 16:30 mark, the band suddenly quadruples the tempo for a chorus or so, rising to an emotional and musical climax before resuming course. These may seem like musical “tricks” to some listeners, but they are not. They were how Mingus conceived music, in a curved arch rather than in a linear fashion, and he was able to maintain these strange balances throughout a complete composition. Perhaps the reason why no one attempts to do what he did is that they know, deep down, that they can’t possibly play this well. They don’t have the kind of musical mind that Mingus had, or the will to impose this style on most of his bands. Brooks takes an excellent, long solo on this one, too; he was a good drummer, just not specifically attuned to the Mingus vibe as well as Richmond. At 26: 50, the whole group goes a little crazy, playing loud, wild, outside figures against one another. Surprisingly, their closer for this set is a short version of Charlie Parker’s Ko-Ko, one of the few times Mingus ever played a piece by Bird (though he wrote two tributes to him).

This version of Fables of Faubus is the fastest I’ve heard, taken at nearly double the tempo of his original recordings (for Columbia and Candid). There are also some rising figures behind McPherson’s solo that I didn’t recall hearing in other performances. The tempo eventually relaxes as the alto saxist continues, with Mingus playing fascinating counter-figures behind him and Brooks adding little figures of his own as gingerbread. There are also some (to me) new figures played by the two saxists behind Faddis’ explosive solo, and Mingus proves he is listening by coming in with the same figure that Faddis used to conclude one of his choruses. Foster plays a strange solo that briefly dips into bitonality, then into almost classical keyboard flourishes. (Unfortunately, the piano at Scott’s club sounds as if it needed a tuning that it didn’t get before these concerts started; some of the piano strings aren’t quite on pitch.) During the tenor solo, at 19:45, Mingus and other band members also start playing in a somewhat microtonal manner—yet they manage to rein it in, tie it into the tune’s structure, and go right on as if nothing untoward had happened. We even get an uptempo melody played by Jones on tenor that sounds like a sped-up country song, followed by a take-off on Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax. When it’s Mingus’ turn, he plays a marvelously complex solo but can’t resist tossing in a little of Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here before suddenly slowing things down and becoming microtonal. Then he plays a minor-key variant on When Johnny Comes Marching Home, followed by a straight rendition of a few bars of Down By the Riverside, Dixie, My Old Kentucky Home, The Star-Spangled Banner, and a variant on Short’nin Bread. A little of everything went into this one!

Although When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, performed here under the title of Pops and dedicated to Louis Armstrong, is credited to the latter as composer, he did not write the tune though he appears to have copyrighted it around 1938 when he first recorded it. The song was actually written as When the Saints Are Marching In in 1896 by James M. Black with words by Katherine E. Purvis and published in Cincinnati, Ohio, although research has shown that some of the music came from an earlier Black song titled When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. The early New Orleans jazz musicians simply conflated the two and started playing it all over the Crescent City in the early years of jazz when Armstrong, who was born in 1901, heard it played by the street bands. (Source: Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.) Mingus’ performance is quite fast and a bit tongue-in-cheek; one of his first professional jobs was as the bassist with Armstrong’s big band in the early 1940s. He greatly admired the trumpeter’s musicianship but couldn’t take his mugging and servile attitude towards whites in the music business (although, as Lester Bowie pointed out, Armstrong was a greater radical for “grinning in their face” while he proved himself better than most of the white jazz musicians of his time). Faddis does a surprisingly good Armstrong imitation on trumpet, but Foster’s piano solo is a bit wild and subversive. Another surprise: Bobby Jones switches to clarinet to do a phenomenal imitation of Barney Bigard, Armstrong’s long-time musical partner in his late 1940s-early-‘50s All Stars. (And Mingus does a fair imitation of Armstrong’s bassist in the All Stars, Arvell Shaw.) The final ride-out is pure Dixieland, and quite phenomenal. I can’t recall ever hearing Mingus do an Armstrong tribute like this one.

The Man Who Never Sleeps is, for Mingus, a surprisingly straightforward piece in a straight 4. Brooks plays some nice brushes on this one, and for once he harmonizes the two saxes almost like a section behind Faddis’ beautiful lead playing. Eventually, however, Mingus can’t resist himself and we do end up getting some tempo shifts, but not the fluid kind than characterized the earlier pieces in this set. Jones also plays clarinet on this one, but in his own style.

The album wraps up with yet another surprise, the only Mingus performance I know of the Charlie Christian-Benny Goodman tune Air Mail Special, and it’s another uptempo, wild ride, the most frantic version of this tune I’ve ever heard. What a way to end things!

The deluxe booklet that accompanies this release includes a brief note from Zev Feldman, a statement from Jazz Workshop, Inc., a detailed article on this concert and its release by Brian Priestly, an interview that Priestly did with Mingus and Charles McPherson in 1972, personal reflections by McPherson, an interview with Fran Lebowitz (who is a huge jazz fan), and other surprises. This is a GREAT release!!!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Advertisement
Standard

3 thoughts on “Charles Mingus’ “Lost Album”

  1. Robert Middleton says:

    Dear Lynn, this is quite a review! The best I’ve read about this album (which I ordered today). Your deep understanding of music made it come alive. I own pretty much everything by Mingus, so an unearthed album like this is a treasure. Speaking of Mingus, why don’t you self-publish your book on Amazon? I’ve done it and it’s quite easy. Not too hard to do, you just need a designer to lay it out. I’m sure it would do quite well. If you want some ideas, let me know. And, of course, I’d love to read it! A book with your own opinions – heaven forbid! – Cheers, Robert

    Like

    • Dear Robert, the reason I didn’t self-publish my book is that I DON’T OWN THE RIGHTS, ONLY THE TYPESET PAGES. The book is still legally the property of Hal Leonard Corp., and they want some publisher to pay them $7,000 for the rights to publish the book…of which I would get nothing until the new publisher somehow made up that $7,000 shortfall. If you know a publisher excited enough about Mingus to want to publish it, let me know. I live at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder on Social Security and I sure as heck don’t have that kind of money.

      Like

    • One further note. The “Mingus Clique” basically consisted of Sue M, Gunther Schuller and Brian Priestly. I certainly respected both Schuller and Priestly, but as a “Jane-come-lately” to the Mingus party, anything I said took a back seat to THEIR opinions. The reason why Schuller found out about what I said regarding “Epitaph” is that Sue gave him a pre-publication copy of the book to read, which she was told NOT to do. I’m not 100% sure, but I think Schuller’s negative opinion helped to finally kill the book.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s