By Lee Rice Epstein
Arguably more than any other label, Resonance Records—and particularly producer and co-president Zev Feldman—understands that, despite the middling quality of recordings circulating on the bootleg market, nothing beats a properly mastered archival release. And for a recording like this one of Charles Mingus playing live at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, from August 1972, the long-circulating bootlegs have met a King Kong release of an archival in Resonance’s brand-new The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s.
1972 was already a fascinating period in Mingus’s history—he played a couple of orchestra sets that winter, turned 50 in April, then went to Europe in summer with a new sextet for a brief tour. The lineup provided Mingus with a chance to shake things up: Roy Brooks moved in on drums, briefly filling the seat for Dannie Richmond; John Foster took over on piano, the role had lapsed a bit since Jaki Byard’s departure and wouldn’t really pick up again until Don Pullen joined in 1973; and Bobby Jones joined on tenor, though he would soon be replaced by George Adams; and trumpet player Jon Faddis concluded his brief tenure with Mingus that fall. Only Charlie McPherson, alto sax, provided Mingus with the anchor he needed, familiar enough with the charts but daring enough to keep pushing forward. For anyone with even a passing interest in Mingus, 1972 must seem like a gestation period, signaling what was coming without quite delivering. It’s possible he needed a few more rotations on the bandstand, but this Ronnie Scott’s recording definitively shows he was moving in many directions at once. And if Foster and Jones wouldn’t stay long in the group, they certainly helped Mingus figure out where he wanted his piano and tenor sounds to go next.
Like several of that summer’s tour stops, the shows at Ronnie Scott’s club were professionally recorded. Mingus intended these to be released in his lifetime, and he exhorts the crowd to clap for the band and be captured on the mics for posterity. The release is simultaneously lengthy and compact, with five of the nine tracks taking up most of the album’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The band jumps right in with “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” a classic that had already been recorded at least a dozen times (and performed dozens more). The setlist then focuses on a couple of short-lived compositions, “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” (sometimes called “Blues In F”) and “Mind Readers’ Convention in Milan.” Brooks plays musical saw here, tipping the group slightly towards avant-garde with its skewering of the timbre—yes, yes, Mingus famously hated being associated with the free jazz and avant-garde crowds, but we all know his music landed its octopodal feet firmly planted in all worlds. Later, Faddis blows a bold solo to open the classic “The Man Who Never Sleeps,” returning to its classic sextet setting after recording an orchestral reading the previous year. The time away seems to have renewed something in the smaller arrangement, and the group jumps right on Faddis’s lead. McPherson and Jones meld beautifully with Faddis—considering the line didn’t last long under Mingus’s leadership, they play extremely well together. It would be challenging to call this sextet a missed opportunity, because the Adams-Pullen lineup is exciting in a hundred ways. But it’s thrilling to hear Mingus paired with Brooks, who has a different feel than Richmond and pulls the bassist to some subtly interesting places. And the mastering gives listeners a great opportunity to listen closely to the drums and bass, eclipsing whatever might have been heard on previously circulating bootlegs.
Depending on the sources, there are somewhere between 15 and 20 recordings of “Fables of Faubus,” one of the most brilliant and fiercest of Mingus’s compositions, a songbook filled with fiery protest songs. On some 1964 recordings, a composition that long hovered around 15–20 minutes finally crests 30 minutes. And at Ronnie Scott’s, Mingus and group lean way in and take it to 35 minutes. There’s no way to know for sure, but these recordings come just after the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. Nixon was about to sail into reelection following McGovern’s sad bid. For someone as astute as Mingus, it doesn’t seem a stretch to hear the anger rattling around as an equally furious rebuke to the state of the Democratic party, Faubus’s once home. Mingus performs a fantastic solo, with a number of quotes, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” eventually moving into a read of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s a dual reminder of what a strong bass player Mingus was and what encyclopedic knowledge he had of American music. There’s a hint of Albert Ayler here, not that Mingus embraced what the saxophonist was doing fully, but their parallel ideas of weaving together blues, spirituals, and folk music to define jazz as a crucial Black American art form continue to drive the development of the music. With the arrival of sets like this one, we can continue to learn new things from Mingus, to hear more of what he was doing as he tried to continuously rewrite his personal songbook. In the pantheon, it’s easy to see where these sits: for Mingus fans, The Lost Album from Ronne Scott’s is like the celebrated release of Coltrane’s One Down, One Up— It highlights a moment when Mingus was on fire and also warming up to his next great version of himself. In two years, he would be recording Changes One and Two, and this sextet would be mostly replaced by a new lineup. Incremental, it is both vital as a standalone and evocative as more connective tissue in Mingus’s evolution.
Available direct from Resonance.