Holiday Gift Guide 2012
Jazz geniuses boxed in
Taking stock of Mingus, Hawkins and more
Published: November 21, 2012
Prodigious in talent, appetite and girth (the latter two metaphorical as well as literal), Charles Mingus was a true jazz giant, a jazz Gargantua. His widow, Sue Mingus, suggests him as a Whitmanesque figure containing multitudes, and The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection, to which she contributes liner notes, gives a sense of this multitude's career. This is hardly the whole Mingus story, not even an overview of the whole story, but it suggests the epic of Mingus. Where the artistry of his peers seems to unfold from some core — think of Coltrane or Monk or Rollins — Mingus' story is more unruly, more like multiple cyclones along a storm front. So messy was his career that he went to his grave in 1979 with his greatest project, "Epitaph," barely hinted at.
Unlike Miles Davis, whose association with Columbia lasted for 30 continuous years, Mingus recorded only sporadically for the label. Still, Mingus' spotty work for Columbia and RCA, now both under Sony's umbrella, spans 25 years of his life and the posthumous recording of the composition "Epitaph" a decade later.
The 10 discs here include two consisting largely of botched takes, outtakes and alternate takes, which Sue Mingus protests should never have been released, let alone re-released here. But the miscellany on the two discs also includes some gems that have either been long unavailable or never issued as part of a Mingus disc before — a 1959 commission for a Third Stream Gunther Schuller project and a duet with Dave Brubeck among them. That leaves eight CDs that range from good to great, to among his greatest.
The Sony/Legacy collection begins with Mingus at age 35, already recognized as jazz's pre-eminent bassist, a sophisticated composer following (more than any of his contemporaries) in the footsteps and ambitions of Duke Ellington; in his long-form "Pithecanthropus Erectus," he'd set out to chart nothing less than the rise of humankind; his roiling "Haitian Fight Song" was another high-water mark. He was also, among other things, a lover of Charlie Parker's music, as outspoken politically as anyone in jazz, a music entrepreneur, and a magnetic bandleader who attracted some of the best musicians around. He was so many things. To note a few more: boisterous and overbearing, sensitive ... sometimes a little crazy, sometimes more than a little crazy.
Recording for an RCA subsidiary, in 1957, he brought jazz and Spanish music raucously together. This was flamenco table dancing in a cantina — a marked contrast to Miles Davis' stately balance of cool and hot in his revered Sketches of Spain sessions, two years later. In one of several bad-luck turns in Mingus' career, RCA sat on Tijuana Moods until 1962, by which time his claim as a pioneer on this count was academic.
Mingus fared better with Columbia in 1959, recording his most successful album to date, Mingus Ah-Um, which debuted "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," his most famous composition, and "Fables of Faubus" another classic-to-be (although Columbia barred Mingus and company from singing the lyrics that equated a Southern segregationist governor and his ilk with Nazis).
Mingus Ah-Um's worthy successor, Mingus Dynasty, followed later that year, again celebrating the textures and possibility of a combo with a small horn section, again including the voluble saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin.
After those sessions, Mingus left the label. He'd eventually leave the music business — disgusted by the business — in 1965, descending into a dark mental state from which his escape was uncertain. But return he did, coming back at gale force with Let My Children Hear Music in 1971, a record emphasizing Mingus the composer, making the point with something like 50 musicians involved, and Teo Macero's production amplifying and projecting the sound to make it all the more powerful.
The lesser successor to Children, and the last Columbia project of his lifetime, came a year later in Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert, originally cut down to two LPs, here expanded to two CDs. The list of friends is exhaustive — Lee Konitz, Randy Weston, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, James Moody, Bill Cosby as MC, just to hit some of the biggest stars. The disc seems a little exhausting, yet it's too good to cut. Mingus famously summed up in three words the night of a thousand solos: "Too many friends."
After Mingus' 1979 death, Sue Mingus discovered a box of music that turned out to be compositions intended for his 1962 Town Hall concert, a live-recording debacle in which only a fraction of the music had been played — and that with mixed results. Forensic musicology by scholar Andrew Homzy led to the interpretation of the find as a 500-page, 18-movement manuscript, incorporating pieces that Mingus had written through his life, and including others unlike anything he'd heard before. It was a grand celebration of the history of jazz (and a lot of European classical music) as channeled through Mingus' genius. And with an all-star 31-musician ensemble, the two hours of music have been performed just a handful of times, the first included stunningly here. (One has to wonder what it might have been with Mingus at the helm, or with a band that could play and really grow into the music.)
The Sony/Legacy Mingus collection covers more than 30 years in 10 discs. The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-1965 on Mosaic covers just a year and a month in seven. But what a stretch of Mingus music begins in April of 1964! The down-home and witty pianist Jaki Byard, along with Mingus — at the height of his bass virtuosity — and Mingus' right-hand drummer Dannie Richmond made for one of most dynamic Mingus rhythm sections, one of the most exciting sections ever; "the Almighty Three," Byard proudly christened them. Eric Dolphy, the most original soloist to come through the Mingus ranks, was nearing the end of his tenure, and was being sent off with the showcases "So Long Eric" and "Praying with Eric." The estimable voices of Clifford Jordan on tenor and Johnny Coles on trumpet completed a powerhouse lineup that could rage and laugh, shift tempi and feel, keep the background support crew in flux and as fascinating as the soloist in the foreground.
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