Tuesday, December 08, 2020

CD Review: Charles Mingus - At Bremen 1964 & 1975

Charles Mingus
At Bremen 1964 & 1975

It's very possible that every concert Charles Mingus performed during his April 1964 trip to Europe was recorded by some person or organization. Mosaic's The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (2012) included the entire April 10 set in Amsterdam. Sue Mingus' Revenge imprint took back a bootleg recording from Paris show from April 17 for a 1996 double-disc release. The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, first released in 1971, presented a three-record set of another Paris show on April 19. Enja released two volumes of Mingus In Europe that came from April 26 in Germany. The questionably legal Unique Jazz label released highlights from a performance in Stuttgart from later in the month, April 28.

Sunnyside's new four-disc set At Bremen 1964 & 1975 adds to the canon with a performance in that German city on April 16, 1964, coupling it together with the bassist's July 9, 1975 return with a new quintet. Both groups take up two discs each in the set. (Unique Jazz released portions of the '64 on vinyl previously.)

Mingus's 1964 sextet is considered one of his best ensembles, because they were able to understand the vast influences and personality that shaped his music. Eric Dolphy (flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Jaki Byard (piano), Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone), Johnny Coles (trumpet) and Mingus' right hand man Dannie Richmond (drums) all made the trip. Coles missed a few dates when he fell ill later in the month and Dolphy, who had planned on staying in Europe before the tour began, died tragically in June due to untreated diabetes.

While the sets were pretty similar on each night of the tour, the music took on different shapes every night. Mingus completists will revel in the new versions of "Meditations on Integration" and "Fables of Faubus," two of the six lengthy tracks from that evening, but this isn't simply music for jazz theorists, who want to compare and contrast shows.

The concert started late and the liner notes make light of the bassist's confrontational attitude that he had when he barreled into Radio Bremen's Studio F, a performance venue that has sold out all 220 seats. But the bad Mingus attitude doesn't come across in the performances. In fact, he even thanks the audience between tunes. Along with the two compositions mentioned above, the group also plays "Hope So Eric," (the blues usually titled "So Long Eric"), Byard's "AT-FW-YOU" (here, simply "Piano Solo"), Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Parkeriana," a complex blend of Charlie Parker tunes and original solos. 

Other than the piano solo and Ellington piece, everything lasts at least 21 minutes, with "Faubus" going on for 32. In other versions of the politically charged tune from the tour, soloists would play freely and the group would slowly morph into a groove similar to the Spanish-flavored bassline from "Ysabel's Table Dance," building in intensity until things collapsed and the theme cued the next soloist. This happens during Dolphy's bass clarinet solo, but not with Coles, Jordan or Byard. Instead, Mingus throws in a little bit of "Haitian Fight Song" and Byard quotes "Yankee Doodle" with the takeaway feeling new and equally as bold. 

"Parkeriana" also comes off more like a complex composition with jarring tempo shifts and blowing space, rather than simply a parade of Bird lines. Jordan rules the roost here, with Dolphy adding some commentary which is unfortunately off mike. The other surprise is the coda to "Meditations on Integration." While the group often the extended composition until it became a ball of fire, the last seven minutes find Mingus (with his bow) and Byard in a more reflective mood, with Dolphy adding some color with his flute. If the crowd didn't know what to think, time has revealed how deeply attuned this group was their leader's vision.

Eleven years later Mingus was back in Bremen at the Post-Aula Auditorium. Along with Richmond, the new quintet included Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor saxophone) and Don Pullen (piano). Many of the bassist's '70s albums were built on larger groups and compositions, but this appearance draws on music that would come out a year later on Changes One and Changes Two, two of his last triumphs with a smaller group. 

Mingus often referred to a new album as "one of the best things I've done," and he was pretty much on the mark with the Changes albums. Adams and Pullen could pivot between the rich Ellington influence in Mingus's writing and bring the aggression of free jazz to bear on wilder moments. All of this can be found in the 32 minutes of "Sue's Changes." Pullen solos alone and then goes into some two-fisted jabs behind the band. Adams adds some Ayler-esque honks to his solo. Walrath precedes both of them with a free passage that moves into a set of rich trills over a band vamp. A single-chorus romp through "Cherokee" could either be a send-up of free jazz attacks or just a fun moment, working either way.

The 1975 recording feels superb (as does the 1964) although it sounds as if Mingus was playing through an amplifier rather than being miked directly, the latter being that standard by that time. Although he can be heard clearly, the process eliminates some of his signature sound - of big fingers plucking the strings, making the wood of the bass resonate so personally. The other surprise is that "Devil Blues," which features Adams's hyper-animated vocals, almost sounds like it was aimed more at wooing the crowd than extending the personality of the band. It's not bad, just a tad anti-climatic. Of course it's hard to follow such a unique, charged statement as "Remember Rockefeller At Attica."

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