COMPOSERS: Charles Mingus
ALBUM TITLE: Charles Mingus
PERFORMER: Charles Mingus (b, pno) with various ensembles
CATALOGUE NO: 8122 72871 2 (distr. Warner Bros)
Mingus’s music resists conventional categorisation. So broad was the sweep of his imagination that just the mention of his name is sufficient to sum up its ambition and scope, which included programme music, gospel-orientated music, Third Stream music, hard bop, free jazz, film music and big band music. However, the diversity of his compositions kept him apart from the mainstream of the Fifties and Sixties, something that seems to have mitigated against him being remembered as a great jazz composer.
Yet Mingus was not just a composer. As a soloist, he was the first bassist to incorporate the virtuoso playing of Jimmy Blanton and apply it to the conventions of bop; and as a bandleader, his unorthodox approach to ensemble performance, often insisting his musicians play their parts from memory, produced music that was uniquely personal and frequently dynamic.
The period covered by Passions of a Man contains Mingus’s most famous works, and suggests the extent to which his achievements have tended to be overlooked, as a pall of hard bop conformity descended on jazz in the Eighties and Nineties. His first masterwork, the programmatic Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) is uncompromising in its vision and still sounds remarkably contemporary.
With The Clown from the following year, compositions such as ‘Reincarnation of a Lovebird’ and ‘Haitian Fight Song’ show how he was always careful to cast his musicians in appropriate roles. He provided varied backgrounds which demanded that the solo suit the context of the composition rather than launching out in an uninterrupted stream which may or may not relate to the composition at hand.
‘E’s Flat and Ah’s Flat Too’ from 1959’s Blues & Roots (later recorded as ‘Hora Decubitus’) and ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ are memorable, atmospheric pieces that contain a variety of devices which Mingus often used: stop time passages, improvised counterpoint, evangelical handclaps and exhortations that all went beyond the routine accompanying style prevalent in jazz, then and now.
The album Mingus at Antibes, his concert from 13 July 1960, charts his association with saxophonist Eric Dolphy, while on Mingus, Oh Yeah! he directs instrumental traffic from the piano, to no lessening of emotional impact. The final disc contains a 76-minute interview with producer Nesuhi Ertegun, and Mingus is alternately frank, evasive, humorous and prickly, revealing his complexities just as clearly as his music. Stuart Nicholson