For the Centenary of Charles Mingus’ birth, LJN asked saxophonist Chris Biscoe, who has run the Mingus Moves Sextet since 1995 (see details of three forthcoming gig dates below), to reflect on the great bassist/composer/bandleader:
Chris Biscoe writes: My choice of 10 tracks will seem narrow to any Mingus student, collector, expert, discographer or biographer. It isn’t a survey of the life’s work of one of the most important bass-players, composers, arrangers, and experts in the putting together and pulling apart of music in jazz history. Great as he was in each of these, the sum of the parts is even greater.
Charles Mingus is recognised as composer and soloist but I feel the recordings from 1960 (Mingus Presents Mingus and Mingus at Antibes) demonstrating rhythmic ideas from Mingus and Danny Richmond which influenced improvised music but are mostly unfulfilled in his jazz legacy.
Charles Mingus was born on 22 April 1922, so today is the centenary of his birth. He grew up with church music, first heard Duke Ellington when eight years old and played trombone before settling on double bass. He started to participate in classical music workshops in 1943 and later in jazz workshops with Teddy Charles, Teo Macero and others. From there on he created his own jazz workshops which led to the great recordings of the late 1950s.
Charles Mingus played and recorded with the Red Norvo Trio and worked briefly with Duke Ellington. From 1952 to 1957 along with his wife Celia and Max Roach he ran Debut Records, one of the first musician run labels. The most famous recordings on the label are The Quintet of the Year at Massey Hall and Bud Powell at Massey Hall, on both of which Mingus played bass.
Mingus career as band leader and composer took off around 1957 and from then to the mid 1960s he produced a sequence of classic albums. Around 1973 he became ill with ALS and eventually was unable to play, but continued working on various projects, the last of which was Mingus, with Joni Mitchell. He died in 1979. I can recommend ‘Mingus, A Critical Biography’, by Brian Priestley. Other biographies are available (but I haven’t read them).
Mingus Ah Um was the first LP by Charles Mingus I bought and I start with the first three tracks, my thrilling introduction to his music. The CD re-issue differs from the LP. Material edited out for LP release has been re-instated on several tracks, including on two of my choices.
1. Better Git It In Your Soul – Mingus Ah Um
This has a fast 6/8, gospel. The intro is just great. 12 bars: bass solo, add piano, then trombone, drums with the trombone link to the theme. Everything sounds improved.
The theme isn’t a blues, but sounds like one. Shafi Hadi doesn’t solo on this track, but his, other-worldly high register is the commentary throughout, with Mingus’ voice amplifying the written horn lines.
What follows is nineteen 12 bar choruses. This could be repetitive, but is astonishing. It’s mostly based on shuffling and re-combining riffs.
1. John Handy plus lumpy 6/8
2. horn backing
3. So over swing
4. piano riff
5. trombone backing
6. add sexes
7. new piano riff, add Shafi Hadi
8. add tbn riff
9. new piano figure
10 and 11. clapping + Booker Ervin preaching, great drum break into
12 and 13. Booker swinging
14. drum solo
15. variant on chorus 5
16. add Shafi Hadi and voice
18.trombone, saxes answering
19. drums, then they take it home.
2. Goodbye Porkpie Hat – Mingus Ah Um
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” is one of the best loved jazz ballads and is a great example of Charles Mingus talent for capturing the essence of a fellow musician, Lester Young, while writing music melodically and harmonically far from that person’s home turf. It’s a haunting melody over a deceptively complex chord sequence, with a contrasting minor blues solo sequence, magical moment mid-way through John Handy’s tenor solo where his signature flutter-tongue is backed by Mingus stroking the bass strings – gorgeous.
3. Boogie Stop Shuffle – Mingus Ah Um
I prefer the heavily edited LP version to the restored CD version. Listen to both if possible. This is 25 choruses of a minor blues and, again, Mingus varies the approaches brilliantly, playing fast shuffle and jazz time, piano riffs and band riffs, against each other. On the CD Booker Ervin plays 4 choruses, followed by 4 of John Handy. The LP cuts straight to Booker’s third chorus and omits the alto solo.
4. All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother – Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus
Mingus and Danny Richmond are incredible on this, totally and overwhelmingly interacting with the soloists. On the first chorus of Ted Curzon’s and Eric Dolphy’s solo they use similar rhythmic breaks, then slice and dice the choruses at will. The whole band plays with enormous drive, somehow landing on the first note of the closing theme as one.
5. Passions of a Woman Loved – Tonight at Noon
This record is partly from 1957, part 1961. The 1957 tracks (‘Passions’ and ‘Tonight’) are extraordinarily weird even now and have a lot of collective semi improvisation over written passages. Passions of a Woman is like a scrapbook of Mingus musical ideas including re-workings of original tunes in different rhythms and constant shifts from rubato to 3 to 6 in a bar finally settling into swinging 4/4 for the solos.
6. Septemberly Mingus at the Bohemia
This goes back to my very first Mingus listening. I haven’t heard it for more than 50 years but it’s one of several re-workings of standards that have stayed with me. It’s a version of Tenderly played agonisingly slowly over a shimmering pedal, with September in the Rain appearing when it goes into medium tempo. You can also hear one of my favorite forgotten tenor saxists, George Barrow, and trombonist Eddy Bert who played with everybody. Willie Jones plays drums.
7. Dizzy Moods – Tijuana Moods
This is another example of Mingus setting something with fairly conventional structure and solos in a context which makes it utterly memorable. Dizzy Moods is based on Dizzy Gillespie’s, with a six beat rhythm in the bridge to add spice. What sets it apart is the unaccompanied horn, bass, drum and piano segments which introduce it and re-introduce the theme after the solos.
8. What Is This Thing Called Love – Charles Mingus
The theme statement also incorporates bits of Hot House and Woody’n You. I find it irresistible for the bizarre drumming (tambourine, hi-hat and suitcase???), many third stream devices and strange changes of instrumentation. At one point Mingus plays piano and the cellist plays the bass line. Thad Jones is brilliant though (deliberately?) wayward and legendary record producer Teo Macero plays interesting tenor.
9. Folk Forms – Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus
This is mostly based on a medium tempo blues, but it’s in a constant state of flux, with non-tempo dialogues between any 2, 3 or 4 musicians (Mingus, Danny Richmond, Ted Curson, Eric Dolphy) abruptly into intense swing.
10. Fables of Faubus – Live in Paris 1964
This isn’t my favorite version of this great composition, but is vital as an example of the developments Charles Mingus brought to small band playing in the mid 1960s. Each solo is one chorus, with an extended period of meditation, interaction, moving in and out of tempo before bringing returning to the last section of the solo sequence. Danny Richmond often abandons jazz drumming drumming in favor of dramatic interventions. A tour de force.
Mingus Profiles Sextet with Chris Biscoe, Henry Lowther, Pete Hurt, Kate Williams, Larry Bartley and Gary Willcox are celebrating the centenary of the birth of Charles Mingus at Riverhouse Barn, Walton on Thames, on April 24.
Further concerts so far scheduled are in Leeds on 19 May and Sheffield on 20 May.