Thursday, May 07, 2009

Music Library: Charles Mingus

Today it's all coming up Mingus!

  • Passions Of A Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1956-1961). This is a box set that includes tracks that originally appeared on six different Mingus albums - Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), The Clown (1957), Blues and Roots (1959), Mingus At Antibes (1960), Tonight At Noon (1961), and Oh Yeah (1962) - plus a few others that have popped up as bonus tracks. The only problem is that the songs have been put in order of recording, rather than sequenced to the albums, which throws off the flow a bit. Or, at least, it reinterprets the relationship of the tracks to each other, which may be the point. Although Mingus had been a bandleader for decade before these recordings, this is the period where critics generally agree that he came into his own. The music on this box set is profound and wonderful, full of ambition and playfulness. If you care about music, you should hear it. It's that simple.
  • Mingus Three (1957). A more bop-oriented album with a piano-bass-drums trio.
  • Blues and Roots (1959). Although all of these tracks are on Passions Of A Man, I like them better in this sequence.
  • Mingus Ah Um (1959). Everything about this album is stunningly great. A number of these tracks are about Mingus paying tribute to his favorite musicians, but while he flavors the tracks with stylistic similarities to particular musicians, everything sounds like Charles Mingus. And it swings!
  • Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife (compilation, 1959-1971). It's not really right to call this a compilation, as it's pretty much an inexplicable album. I bought it before I knew much about Mingus, or I wouldn't have bought it. It consists of 6 of the 10 tracks on the 1959 Mingus Dynasty album, plus one track, the title track, which is from the 1972 album Let My Children Hear Music. I don't know why anyone in their right mind thought this was a good idea. This is to say nothing about the music, which is freakin' awesome, all the way through. Just a weird, weird idea that Columbia had when they made this album.
  • Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960). Mingus compositions with more free-jazz improv than usual. The band on this is a four-piece with bass, drums, trumpet, and Eric Dolphy on alto sax and bass clarinet. Dolphy is at his best. In fact, I think he's better on this than on Out To Lunch. This has another version of "Fables of Faubus" called "Original Faubus Fables" with lyrics sung by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond.
  • Tijuana Moods (1962). Although it came out in 1962, this album was recorded in 1957 and sounds like the more bop-oriented Mingus of that time. Great stuff, though! Mingus has a nine-piece combo to work with here, and he used them to great effect. This version has alternate takes of 4 of the 5 album tracks as a bonus.
  • The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963). This is a masterpiece. It's a ballet, composed and titled for dancers, but it's also a portrait of the artist's soul.
  • Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). Some jazz composers record the same tracks over and over again, using the sidemen to change the flavor each time. When you dip into Thelonious Monk, for instance, you notice the same tracks coming up again and again. This one is like that in spirit, if not name. Almost all of the tracks recorded here appear elsewhere in the Mingus catalog, although almost all of them are usually better known by the other name. "II B.S." is "Haitian Fight Song" from 1957's The Clown. "I X Love" is part of "Duke's Choice" from 1957's A Modern Symposium of Music and Poetry. "Celia" is new. "Mood Indigo" is an Ellington composition that he's previously recorded for the 1959 Mingus Dynasty. "Better Get Hit In Yo' Soul" and "Theme For Lester Young" both first appeared on the 1956 album Mingus Ah Um under slightly different names (ok, "Theme for Lester Young" was "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which is vastly different). "Hora Decubitus" was "E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too" from Blues and Roots. And "Freedom" was a section from the as-yet uncompleted Epitaph, a major Mingus composition that would not be performed in its final version until after his death. But Mingus was at the top of his powers here, with an 11-piece band that could tear the roof off of any joint, and this disc swings like crazy.
  • Mingus Plays Piano: Spontaneous Compositions And Improvisations (1963). Sort of the flip-side to Black Saint, this album is nothing but Mingus solo playing the piano. It's gorgeous and as honest as Black Saint ("Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues" actually pulls themes from Black Saint). Where that album was capital-A Art, this one is lowercase-a art. And it's just beautiful. It's also, if I'm not mistaken, his last studio album for nine years.
  • Cornell 1964 (1964). This is a latter-day treasure find, a recording of Mingus's sextet in 1964, about to embark on the European tour that would ultimately take Eric Dolphy's life. The line-up is Mingus on bass, his regular Dannie Richmond on drums, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Jaki Byard on piano, and Dolphy and Clifford Jordan on various other horns. And hot damn!, do they ever cook. And they sound like they're having a hell of a great time, throwing quotes from folk songs and pop music and classical music in, pulling off these start-stop-switch-on-a-dime rhythmic changes as if they're nothing - it's enough to make one reconsider the popular image of Mingus as the tormented, barbaric, and mostly humorless bandleader.
  • Town Hall Concert (1964). Same band as on Cornell 1964, but there's a lot less material here.
  • Changes One (1974). Lovely album from late in Mingus's life.
  • Changes Two (1974). The companion album.
  • This Is Jazz, Vol. 6 (1996). A compilation with material from Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife," and a part of "Epitaph." Completely unnecessary.


Anonymous 4:21 PM, August 25, 2009  

Thanks for this informative post, Charles Mingus is one of my favourite artists but with such a massive discography full of compilations and live albums its hard to know what to get next.

Hayden Childs 11:56 PM, August 25, 2009  

Glad to help! Good luck in your exploration of Mingus's catalog.

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