To define a man as complex as Charles Mingus is a challenging task. He was a musician of sublime talent, with a temper and a doctrinaire nature often as reputable as his musicianship. Mingus’ career is laced with tales of rage, pedantic perfectionism and frustration. Frustration about inequality, musicality and identity. Mingus was without a doubt one of the most volcanic men on the jazz scene, with this often being exemplified by his mercurial back catalogue.
Originally studying the trombone and cello, Mingus was a multi-instrumentalist who transitioned to the double bass, which eventually became his musical motif. Mingus was widely noted to be a phenomenon on the double bass, eventually touring with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington before crafting his own compositions and leading his own bands.
Mingus embodied hard work and self-development, resulting in a body of work surpassing over 250 releases. He poured his heart and his soul into his craft, creating a varied and sublime list of releases. Mingus’ back catalogue is a rip-roaring ride. It’s wild, unpredictable, unstable, hostile and brilliantly imaginative. It’s everything you would expect from a man like Charles Mingus.
This record is as innovative as it is courageous. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” was a high concept piece, with Mingus revealing that it was a tone poem. The poem dictated the journey of a hominid man’s evolution from ape to upright man, only for the hominid man to self-destruct as a consequence of human nature.
Mingus also crafted the incredibly charming “A Foggy Day (In San Francisco),” in which he paints the picture of exactly that, with music. Whistles blow, cars honk and sirens ring, creating a picturesque image of a foggy day in San Francisco. In 1956, this was simply unheard of. Mingus was daring, adventurous and bold to attempt such a thing. The beauty of the track is that it’s not a cliché, nor does it seem cheesy. You really are transported to another time and place.
It was during this album that Mingus really experimented with the way he composed and created music. He reportedly crafted solos and compositions for his musicians based on their personalities and not their abilities. As a composer who would traditionally dictate parts by writing them down on sheet paper, Mingus chose to scrap this form of composition and instead dictate the parts by ear and let the musicians express themselves freely.
This album would prove him to be a founding father of improvised jazz, opening the doors for many musicians and encouraging them to create music that defied conventional musicality. Pithecanthropus Erectus laid musical foundations that would influence the genre forever.
The Clown is an album that continued with Mingus’ improvised form. Nevertheless, it’s brash and has such a bold identity. It was during this album that Mingus makes his claim as one of the greatest double bassists and composers around.
His solo during “Blue Clee” is just glorious. It feels bluesy, sounds raw and is instantly alluring. Mingus demands that you listen, that you take note and that you enjoy. Mingus plays with infectious confidence. His ability to alter the dynamics of both his instrument and his band are second to none.
This is once again demonstrated on “Haitian Fight Song.” For a while, Mingus plays alone. There’s a somber feel to his solo. There’s a point where the music feels directionless, until the band come back into the song, then you realize Mingus knew where he was going all along.
“Reincarnation of a Love Bird” was a song that was not originally composed in memory of Charlie Parker, but after a period of crafting the song, Mingus came to realise that the song “was Charlie.” Much like Charlie Parker, the tune is a loose, haphazard and often disconcerting composition. The notes drift from flat to sharp, the pace changes from quick to sluggish. It’s confident, then confused. In terms of metaphors, you won’t get closer to Charlie Parker.
The title track “The Clown” is groundbreaking. Laced with sardonic subtext, the semi-improvised track makes you feel unnerved from the get go. The song is narrated by Jean Shepherd, who discusses a clown and his desire for affection and acceptance. Even when the clown succeeds in making people laugh, he still feels degraded. Though Mingus was succeeding as a musician, he always felt that perhaps it was not on his terms. Mingus was a tortured individual, who often felt controlled by the restrictions and barriers created by race, class and record labels. Even when he was succeeding, Mingus was not necessarily happy. “The Clown” is a song that will offer you the deepest and darkest insight in to Mingus’ psyche.
Mingus Ah Um is a wondrous album. Though common in this day and age, Mingus was making hardened political statements about race and segregation in 1959 that very few dared to make. “Fables of Faubus” was a direct attack on the Governor of Arkansas and his opposition to the integration of nine African-American students into Little Rock Central High School. Mingus was catatonically daring to make such a statement, but simply did not care for societal norms, which he felt governed the context of his music. In fact, these rules had the opposite effect and Mingus would often channel his malcontent into his music, as is seen in the “Fables of Faubus.” The tune feels almost jovial, perhaps even comical, creating an ironic and almost circus-like tune to mock the Governor of Arkansas. It’s a joyous exhibition of intelligent hostility.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was an homage to the late Lester Young and is a slow and brooding tune, once again portraying the genius of Mingus when stood behind his double bass. It’s a sumptuous musical offering. It’s harmonious, gentle and soft. “Pussy Cat Dues” is of a similar ilk, offering a suave and boozy vibe as the cool music floats along freely.
Mingus Ah Um is an album that is revered for its consistency and personality. While the style of music varies significantly, the album is full-bodied and you are left content at the end of each song. Listen from start to finish, you deserve it.
Mingus released this album on the infamous Candid label, who allowed him more creative control than previous labels could afford. Subsequently, Mingus was allowed to record vocals on the previously mentioned “Fables of Faubus,” which was re-recorded and renamed “Original Faubus Fables.” Columbia records refused to release the original song with lyrics as they were of such inherent hostility that Columbia considered them to be too antagonistic for the country to be associated with. During the new recording of this song, Mingus and his band chant that Governor Faubus is a “fool,” a “Nazi” and is “sick.” Such heroics were rarely witnessed in the bright lights of popular culture. The song itself is a masterpiece of interchanging rhythms, alternating solos and smooth musical textures. It’s a stripped-down track, with a semi-improvised feel. John Handi and Shafi Hadi take turns to lace the track with lush tenor saxophone solos, before the music grinds to a halt and Mingus holds court on his double bass. He chugs away furiously, sliding up and down his fretboard with vicious intent. The aggression and mockery is antagonistic, which is a delight to behold.
The pleasure that can be had from Presents Charles Mingus is that of the previously mentioned creative control. “What Love” is the work of the phenomenal quartet featuring Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond. The transcendent musicianship is provoked by the freedom they are offered by Mingus. Mingus led the band with his bass, stating that they were free to create the music they wanted but had to adjust accordingly to what he was playing on his double bass, both rhythmically and tonally. Each musician takes it in turn to improvise a solo, thus creating an inimitable composition. Of all of Mingus’ works, this is a stand-out piece of unique improvisation. The album on the whole is a creative masterpiece.
Blues and Roots is a hard-hitting, rip-roaring album. Drawing on blues, gospel and soul music, Mingus stated in the linear notes that he created this album to confront critics on the idea that he didn’t swing enough. When Charles Mingus got backed into a corner, he often came out swinging. With Blues and Roots, this was quite literally the case.
Needless to say, Mingus makes his point from the first to the last note. Blues and Roots swings hard and oozes with soul. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is raw blues at its best. The band swing in full force throughout, with Horace Parlan tinkling away on the piano with imposing authority. The band take it in turns to wail the blues, sounding fresh and refined, yet stripped-down and unique.
Pepper Adams is particularly prolific on this album, with his baritone saxophone adding an earthy feel to the brass that really brings the blues out in the music. This is particularly prevalent during “Cryin’ Blues.” Pepper Adams provides a backbone for the band, ripping up a deep and bassy baritone saxophone riff. The tenors Jackie McLean and John Handy tie in impressively with Pepper Adams and unite together to cause a ruckus.
It’s hard to segregate each track and choose why it’s brilliant. Blues and Roots is a journey, so go with it and enjoy the ride.
Oh Yeah features what could be considered an all-star brass line up. The cocktail of Booker Ervin and Roland Kirk is phenomenal, with the listener being hard pushed to find a better brass amalgamation than this.
“Devil Woman” is a cocktail shaken with the above brass section, creating a soft and earthy jam that’s blues and post-bop in equal measure. It’s a tantalizing track, with Mingus leading at the front, this time on the piano. The keys fall down like rain drops, while being complimented by the world’s greatest brass combination. Roland Kirk and Booker Ervin later offer individual solos that melt in the mouth. The solos are gentle and every note played perfectly. Less is more, or so they say.
Once you are nice and relaxed, the pace is changed with “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am.” This is a hard bop at its best. The band slams down a fast beat, led by an animated Mingus shouting throughout the track. Roland Kirk once again slays a furious solo, while being egged on by Mingus. “Yeah, Roland!” he screams. You can’t help but do so too. It really gets you going.
The same could be said for “Eat That Chicken.” This tune is another joyous bop classic. You can’t help but nod your head and jive your way around whatever you may be doing at the time.
Tijuana Moods is the dictionary definition of organized chaos. The album features “Ysabels Table Dance” and let it be said, never has a song had a more perfect title. The pace of this title leaves your head spinning. Initially, “Ysabels Table Dance” erupts into bedlam, only to slow down to make way for a lavish Curtis Porter solo. As if out of nowhere, the pace picks up again and chaos ensues. Ysabel Morel on the castanets deserves a mention, with her castanets being a particular highlight during this song. The cricket-like sound of the castanets comes leaping to the forefront of the anarchy with their engaging and irreplaceably unique sound. Be warned, this music may encourage you to also partake in a table dance of your own.
The beauty of this album is the metamorphosis from chaos to unperturbed, from a fight to a kiss. Perhaps this personifies Mingus’ bipolar diagnosis perfectly. “Flamingo” is the closing track, and is a smoochy, meandering closer. Bill Triglia tinkers away on the piano while Clarence Shaw wails away on his trumpet. The duo complement each other’s playing style, creating a velvety ambiance to die for. It’s an unequalled end to an album. It’s a coffee after a big meal; it’s a cigarette after sex.
Much like Mingus Ah Um, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was met with reverence. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is an abrasive and quarrelsome work of art. It could be argued that this big band album falls into the remit of avant-garde, while staying true to the traits of a traditional big band album.
Mingus recorded this album with an extensive range of gifted musicians, including Booker Ervin on tenor saxophone, and the arrangements being crafted by the infamous Bob Hammer. Forming this relationship with Hammer was invaluable for Mingus’ personal musical development. He would later refer to Hammer as his “Beethoven.”
A stand out track would be “Group Dancers.” Jaki Byard laid the foundations for this song, with delicate, gentle piano. It starts soft, with Byard dictating the pace of the track with authority. After moments of what feels like drifting, the pace drastically alters and the brass enters the music like a bull in a china shop, smashing everything in sight. In an instant, the chaos calms and Jaki Byard brings us back down to earth, sweeping up the mess that was made. It’s terrific.
The last three tracks of this album are merged into one movement and run at 17 minutes long. They are named “Trio and Group Dancers,” “Single Solo’s and Group Dance” and “Group and Solo Dance.” The three tracks are a rambunctious mismatch that often descend into chaos, with brass flying around left right and centre. The big band unify to create a huge swinging sound that gets your feet stomping. The band brings itself to a tremendous crescendo, operating at a lightning fast pace that you can barely tap your feet too. Before you know it, the band slows things down completely. The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady can be exhausting, yet exhilarating.
Once again teaming up with Bob Hammer, Mingus offers a somewhat stripped down, boisterous post-bop album. Whilst a big band does feature on this album, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus feels rawer than previous recordings.
“II B.S” showcases Mingus’ powerful double bass playing. He pulls away at his double bass strings, laying down a concrete bass line for the band, who jump in and out when Mingus allows. Mingus is in complete control, with this tune exhibiting all of his bombastic skills. “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” is cut from the same cloth, and features the otherworldly Eric Dolphy who leads a brass section that takes flight through this track. The solos are bright and effervescent, with the band displaying a synergy and confidence that could only be grown by musicians led by Hammer and Mingus.
“Theme for Lester Young” is a slower, somnambulant tune. It’s elemental, and laced with character. From the first note to the last, you feel transported. When it starts, you’re immediately transported to a smoky New York bar, and you’re having a drink with the dearly departed Lester himself. It was a song crafted in memory of Lester Young, which he would have loved.
Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is frequently overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a confident, well-refined post-bop album that’s worthy of your attention.
Let My Children Hear Music is a fine piece of orchestration and what Mingus considered to be the “best album” he had ever made. During this album, Mingus synthesised with composers and transcribers Sy Johnson, Alan Raph and Hub Miller. They assisted in helping Mingus craft a watertight composition alleviating some of the pressures that previously caused Mingus to have a breakdown and a subsequent break from music.
Subsequently, Let My Children Hear Music was an album that took a different approach to other Mingus albums. Though Mingus was in control of the main body of the music, there was more delegation involved during this recording and consequential input from other persons. Though the music created was not inherently new for Mingus, the post production techniques, handled by Teo Macero, offered listeners a Mingus album produced with new techniques and ideas. Teo Macero cleverly used a cocktail of overdubs, sound effects and existing samples to create a feel that was deep, brassy and brash.
“The Chill of Death” is sublime, feeling more like a film score for a horror film than the classically formed bop track you would expect. The string section is haunting, with Mingus reciting a poem over these strings that gives you chills.
“Hobo Ho” is a magnetic slice of bop. Bobby Jones really lets you have it on his tenor sax, while Joe Wilder and Lonnie Hillyer fight back with wild trumpet solos over a 10-minute track, which feels like brass musicians in a musical bar fight. The orchestration on this album really is so good, and you feel like the support of such a big and impermeable orchestra gives the soloist a confidence that exemplifies their skills.
Luke Pybus is a freelance writer and vinyl obsessive from Cardiff, Wales. Usually found shoulder deep in a box of records, or with a hot coffee writing about them.
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