Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Meditations on Mingus

I'm on a two-week staycation from work. One of the goals of this break is to listen to and write about more music, here and elsewhere. Though there are a few CDs I'm almost ready to review here, I wanted to take an entry to talk about Charles Mingus. I bought the Mosaic Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 box right before Labor Day and I feel like it's given me an even greater perspective of its subject.

I've always loved Mingus and I have some of the stuff in the box, like the two long tracks that wound up on Town Hall Concert and the double-album Mingus at Monterey, which doesn't fade at the end of each side so much as end abruptly. Hearing these pieces along with the rest of the evening's performance (in the case of Town Hall) and without having to deal with cuts of any sort during the songs, is kind of illuminating. Mingus was always known for incorporating the influence of Duke Ellington, the passion of blues and the influence of the church all into his music. Early pieces like "Half Mast Inhibition" hinted at classical influence but it almost seemed like an aberration.

Through the seven discs of this set, Mingus does all that but there's also something bigger going on with the music. "Parkeriana" puts tribute to Charlie Parker by cramming as many Bird tunes in a small space as possible, but it's done with a reverential zaniness that is akin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or perhaps Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The musicians know this music inside-out. We're talking about Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles and later Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer. Jaki Byard is the pianist throughout the box, and he's synonymous with a vast music history. So the groups manage to take these things to another level in a way that didn't otherwise happen on a bigger scale until a few decades later. It makes you understand why Mingus was bitter about not getting more recognition at the time.

Then there's "Meditations on Integration" aka "Praying with Eric" aka "Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters," the lengthy epic which begins with a stirring flute melody with goes on to several horn solos and tense riffs and haunting rubato moments. "Fables of Faubus" is a great tune off of Mingus Ah Um and the vocal version on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (on Candid) might have turned it into something with a bit of novelty (yes, the subject of the racist governor of Arkansas is no laughing matter but the exchanges between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond were on the light side). But here it gets stretched out to 30 minutes, with each soloist getting an extended section to cut loose. You want free jazz that's two inches from careening off the rails? Here's your chance.

Although I haven't listened to the 1965 Monterey set as much as the rest, it has some dense compositions that also clue you in that Mingus was trying to push himself beyond "Meditations" into something even bigger. As his widow writes in the booklet, the performances get a little sloppy but it still leaves a strong impression. This set was cut short was an earlier act ran overtime (Mingus' former saxophonist John Handy, ironically). A few nights later the whole set was played, recorded and later released as Music Written for Monterey, 1965, Not Heard...Played in Its Entirety at UCLA. Now I want to find a copy of that.

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