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In Writing

Charles Mingus: Hit In The Soul

September 2012

After the extraordinary achievements of his early years, the great bassist/composer Charles Mingus faced crisis – and a nervous breakdown – in the mid-1960s. But his comeback in the 70s, though constrained by illness, led to a few late masterpieces. as Brian Priestley reports in the concluding part of our Mingus retrospective. This article was originally published in The Wire 76, June 1990.

Read part one of the Charles Mingus retrospective here.

With only six pages of the Mingus discography left after the 30 pages summarised by Jack Cooke last month, you might expect this follow-up to be quite short. However it's fairly normal to find artists, once they're established, moving away from the relatively prolific recording pattern of their youth and spacing out their releases more widely – if they're lucky, getting paid more for them as well. On the other hand, 15 years, the remainder of Mingus's lifespan, is a long time with a lot of ups and downs: it was far from being the clichéd situation of a mature performer milking his marketability while his creativity gradually goes down the tubes.

In fact Mingus's stock with record companies was so low in 1964 (partly, of course, because of the amount of earlier product easily available) that the Mingus At Monterey set became the first release on his latest attempt to run his own label [Jazz Workshop]. Although this floundered within a couple of years, its most important album was the intended follow up, Music Written For Monterey 1965, in which Mingus's then current quartet with Charles McPherson was augmented by two trumpets, tuba (Howard Johnson) and French horn. The writing is by turns either spacious or tight and formal, but the performance carries great conviction, especially the bit where Mingus is cursing out the players. And the intensity of the octet music is relieved by the quartet versions of a bebop medley and of what's described as "Muskrat Ramble" (actually "12th Street Rag").

And that's the last Mingus on disc for five years, mainly because jazz itself became so unfashionable in the USA. The number of albums for review in Down Beat diminished month by month, and the record industry's money was chasing 'America's answer to the Beatles' rather than promoting jazz (unless it happened to cross over like Getz, Morgan and Silver). The only documentation of the bassist during this period is the 1966 club date excerpted in the film Mingus, which culminates in him getting thrown out of his apartment. And, shortly after that, he went through a long spell where there was metaphorically nobody at home at all; or, more literally, Mingus stayed at home and refused to answer the door or the phone.

His slow recovery from depression and nervous breakdown was a couple of years ahead of the renewal of interest in jazz in the early 1970s. But, after the desultory European recordings that marked his resumption of performing, the revival of Mingus's popular reputation began with the extravagant and often exciting big band date Let My Children Hear Music (CBS, 1971). The return to a major label, and to producer Teo Macero, allowed for a huge personnel and for endless overdubbing, most of which was dropped from the finished album. It also encouraged Mingus's retrospective tendencies, with two pieces re-done from the Monterey 1965 set (these versions sound comparatively grandiose but more conventional) and with the inclusion of the composer's adolescent tone-poem-with-narration "The Chill Of Death".

The small group recording of the period which intrigues me most is the still extant, still unissued live set done at Ronnie's in 1972 with Jon Faddis, mainly because I'd like to hear if it was as good as it felt at the time. But what is perhaps more remarkable is that, after his habitual reshuffling of the line-up, Mingus landed up early the following year with a quintet that included the then little known George Adams and Don Pullen, joined for most of 1974 by Hamiet Bluiett.

The temptation, after all, for most bandleaders at a certain stage of their career is to start using sidemen who will perpetuate rather than extend the music, and who can flatter but not challenge the leader himself. Mingus expressed some ambivalence about this personnel, professing not to care about the solo contributions so long as his tunes were played correctly, but it's hard to think of anyone else over 50 (except Miles) who surrounded himself with such a heavy crew.

The crew had been completed by the return of Mingus's right hand man, drummer Dannie Richmond, who had been away working with real heavies such as Joe Cocker and Elton John. Regrettably, the quintet with Bluiett was preserved on only one release (Mingus At Carnegie Hall, Atlantic 1974), the rather dispensable jam session portion of a concert with guest alumni including John Handy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But, shortly after Bluiett left and was replaced by trumpeter Jack Walrath, the potential of this personnel was realised in the studio on two highly rewarding discs (Changes One and Changes Two, Atlantic 1974). As well as each containing a version of the typical Mingus ballad which quickly became one of his most played items, "Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love", the first volume has the amazing "Sue's Changes" inspired by his wife. If a piece like this had been written about me, I know I'd feel flattered and at the same time very exposed to public view. For it covers a gamut of emotions, necessitating one of Mingus's most complex structures, but does so in a way which forces the soloists (Adams and Pullen) to stretch themselves and the piece to the limits. Because they do, it becomes a satisfying whole – both as a portrait and as a piece.

Although Mingus's recording career continued for a further three years, for one reason or another everything else was done with enlarged groups. And a pretty mixed bag it is. "Music For Todo Modo", for me, reflects all too clearly its origins as film underscore, while the title piece occupying the other side of the same album (Cumbia And Jazz Fusion, Atlantic 1977) is Mingus's last great extended work. It answers his retrospective needs, and once again it forms a satisfying whole. Its opening Latin sections (doubtless as far from genuine Cumbia as most Latin jazz is from the real thing) can be related back to "The Story Of Love" , its 'straight' bebop sections are more like 50s Mingus than typical bop, and its one bit of political satire is voiced with the same joyous menace as the 1960 "Original Faubus Fables". And, to cap it all, there's a closing guest spot by the long-estranged Jimmy Knepper.

I remain less impressed by the equally high-profile, large canvas items called "Three Or Four Shades Of Blues" (Atlantic, 1977) and "Three Worlds Of Drums" (Atlantic, 1978), the latter recorded after Mingus had to forgo playing the bass, directing operations from a wheelchair. Each track is the centrepiece of an album and each of them incorporates a younger generation of musicians: not only Adams's replacement Ricky Ford but Larry Coryell, John Scofield and, in the case of "Three Worlds", the Brecker Brothers and Steve Gadd. But, rather than any side-effects of these particular players, it's the all-star concept and the lack of organic development which makes these pieces sink under their own weight.

Each of the two sets also contains a couple of "greatest hits"; of course, the idea of ransacking your back catalogue may be imposed by a record company, and Duke Ellington always faced similar demands (and usually complied) every time he signed a new contract. These renditions can clearly be seen as inferior to the originals, especially for listeners who grew up when saxophone was the instrument for jazz (and for Mingus) rather than the upstart guitar. Hearing "Better Get Hit In Your Soul" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on the Three Or Four Shades album, or "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" on Me, Myself An Eye (all with guitar too far forward in the mix) can seem fairly ridiculous. And Mingus's ambivalence surfaced again here, blaming his new producer for the results until the albums rapidly outsold his earlier work, when he suddenly mellowed towards them. To be sure, there are some identifiable Mingus characteristics in these performances and, for listeners grabbed by them, they can form a bridge to the accepted classics.

They are certainly preferable to the album originally titled Lionel Hampton Presents The Music Of Charles Mingus (Who's Who, 1977) and reissued misleadingly as His Final Work. Although it consisted of Mingus tunes, he had his hands too full coping with the bass (for the last time) to take any part in directing the Hampton-originated all-star group which included Woody Shaw and Gerry Mulligan. Few artists can fairly be judged in such sessions, especially when they are terminally ill with sclerosis, and there is enough superior Mingus music around to keep anyone busy for a while. As this two-part article has shown, his output was highly varied and variable, but all of it repays listening. The highspots, though, are unlike anyone else's, and worthy of a lifetime's study.

A Guide To The Records
[Please note: This information has not been updated from the original piece, and so some release details may no longer be accurate. However, because there are interesting facts about the release of Mingus's work contained here, we have left the text in its original form.]

You could hardly accuse the record companies of being too eager to document the second half of Mingus's career, or of being too careful which particular sounds they recorded (and kept available). Even the Music Written For Monterey 1965, the only album of Mingus from his own labels which was not reissued by Fantasy/Prestige, used to be exceedingly rare until it was repressed by Sue Mingus on East Coasting EC12001; now even this double album has become hard to find.

One of the remakes from this album is the only track from Let My Children Hear Music to be currently obtainable. It has become the title piece of The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife (CBS 460822 1); there might be a little more on the CD version, which is not to hand, but the bulk of this compilation is drawn from the 1959 Mingus Dynasty sessions.

Some of the later Atlantics do seem to be available, such as Changes One and Changes Two (SD 1677 including "Sue's Changes" and SD 1678, respectively), while Three Or Four Shades Of Blue is on SD 1700. The fate of Cumbia And Jazz Fusion (SD 8801) seems less certain, whereas the lesser Atlantic material such as the 1973 Mingus Moves or the 1978 Me, Myself An Eye and Something Like A Bird don't appear to be around much any more.

Ironically, the Who's Who album is alive and well on Kingdom vinyl (GATE 7016) and on two CD editions, Cleo CLCD 5005 (as His Final Work) and Who's Who 610016 (as Last Recordings, which is scarcely more accurate). Perhaps the relative availability of this session reflects uncertainty about its present ownership, which is often also true of live recordings. One example from the first European tour of Mingus's comeback is In Paris 1970 (on an expensive double CD, DIW 326/327), while the recent issue Live In Chateauvallon 1972 (France's Concert FClCD 134) is something of a curiosity. Just as the best track "Diane" is started half way through (and titled "Body And Soul" for some reason), so was Mingus's group depleted by the sudden departure of Jon Faddis and Bobby Jones. Better start agitating for the release of the Ronnie's recordings of the full sextet, done by CBS but now owned, I believe, by Sue Mingus.

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