Archive for Charles Mingus

Ah Um! 100 Years of Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on April 22, 2022 by telescoper

I discovered this morning that the great bass player, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today (on April 22nd 1922 in Nogales, Arizona). That gives me a great excuse to end the week by posting some music by him. The 1959 album Mingus Ah Um is one of my favourite albums not only in jazz but in any musical genre, and I think it’s a must-have for anyone interested in “modern” (i.e. post-War) jazz, so that’s what I’ve picked.

There are many great things about this album but probably the greatest of them is the extraordinary blend of thematic material and musical styles in represents. It would take a very long essay or even a book to pay appropriate homage to the kaleidoscopic variety of the shifting patterns and textures Mingus creates from ensemble and solo passages. Mingus’s compositional techniques allowed his musicians a remarkable freedom to express themselves which, together with the constant rhythmic and melodic variation, inspires them to great heights of inventiveness. Jimmy Knepper’s trombone solo on Pussy Cat Dues is really superb, as is the long sax solo on Goodbye, Porkpie Hat (a eulogy for Lester Young) which is usually attributed to Booker Ervin but I think is actually played by John Handy. Mingus himself introduces the first number Better git it in your soul, a wonderfully riotous Gospel-inspired creation, that explodes into life after his opening statements on bass.

There are not many albums that comprise traditional elements such as swing riffs, bop lines, and Gospel inflections alongside avant garde ideas like the intro and coda to Bird Calls, which sound like premonitions of the free jazz of Albert Ayler and others. A number of fine jazz composers inherited the legacy of Jelly Roll Morton (to whom Mingus doffs his cap in the last track) and Duke Ellington, including Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron, but in my view none was finer than Mingus.

Here is the whole album. Listen to the first track, and if you’re not hooked you can have your money back.

Pithecanthropus Erectus – Charles Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on November 13, 2021 by telescoper

I heard this track on the radio the other night courtesy of John Kelly’s show and thought I’d write a post about it because I think it’s a neglected masterpiece. Pithecanthropus Erectus is the title track of an album by Charles Mingus released in 1956. For that time it was incredibly new: the long passages of static harmony, along with grunts and squeals from the horns, all became common place in avant garde jazz in later years but it is very surprising to hear them in a record from the mid 50s.

Mingus intended this piece to convey in music humanity’s evolution, which he imagined would end in violent destruction. Who’s to say he was wrong? The tune itself is in an intriguing ABAC form with the B and C sections based on the same unvarying harmonic pattern but the C section being agitated and even chaotic. On the first and last choruses the alto sax of Jackie Mclean and the tenor of J.R. Monterose play improvised duets on the B section while the C section involves the whole band improvising collectively in a style reminiscent of the free jazz of the 1960s. The unusual accents on the fourth beat of the bar were later adopted by Miles Davis on Milesetones. These are just a couple of examples of how influential this track was to turn out to be. Looking back on it in historical perspective you can see how much of the musical vocabulary of jazz expanded with this one track.

Mingus shared with Miles Davis the ability to create music that was distinctively his own while somehow at the same time giving his musicians plenty of time to express themselves. In this performance there’s a very fine piano solo by Mal Waldron who, among other things, very effectively channels Thelonious Monk to a marvelous bass accompaniment by Mingus.

The other three tracks on the album are good too, but inevitably pale beside this work of genius in which Mingus managed to weld all these new and untried elements into a completely satisfying unity that was years ahead of its time.

Bird 100: The Quintet at Massey Hall

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

For my next piece in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Charlie Parker I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert is available on Youtube here:

This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!

Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however, was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.

Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!

Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.

Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.

This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.

PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.

The Quintet at Massey Hall

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by telescoper

Time for a quick Jazz review, I think. This time I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert  is now available on Youtube here:

This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!

Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however,  was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.

Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!

Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear  particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.

Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the  emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.

This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.

PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.

Mingus – Oh Yeah!

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 10, 2013 by telescoper

I noticed a news item this morning which explains that the Supernova Cosmology Project have found a supernova with a redshift of 1.71, which makes it the most distant one found so far  (about 10 billion light-years away).  That – and hopefully others at similar distances – should prove immensely useful  for working out how the expansion rate of the Universe has changed over its history and hence yield important clues about the nature of its contents, particularly the mysterious dark energy.

Of particular relevance to this blog is the name given to this supernova, Mingus, after the jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus. Both the discovery and the great choice of name are grounds for celebration, so here’s one of my favourite Mingus tracks – the delightfully carefree and exuberant Eat that Chicken, from the Album Oh Yeah. Enjoy!