Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

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HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Yusef Lateef: R.I.P., Gentle Giant (Revisited)

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We have lost one of the great, indeed one of the greatest, ones.

Yusef Lateef, aged 93 years young, was finally stopped by cancer on December 23.

I say “finally” because Lateef was so positive, productive and relentlessly creative, it seemed like he might never slow down, much less die.

How productive was he over how many years? Check this out.

And definitely check out this excellent overview of his life and career, via Peter Keepnews.

There are many ways beyond his impressive biography to celebrate him, but for me, much of what he did and who he was can be summarized by one word signifying one year: 1957. Lateef’s output in 1957, like that of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane –not shabby company– must rank amongst the most astonishing bursts of energy and ecstasy we’ve ever witnessed. Of course, he did not exactly burst onto the scene: he had been working on his music and his vision for over a decade, and once the opportunity arose, he struck quickly and that initial momentum scarcely slackened for the next decade. After that, his recordings were seldom infrequent and never uninspired.

Here is a useful excerpt from the Keepnews piece:

by the time he made his first records as a leader, in 1957, he had begun establishing a reputation as a decidedly unconventional musician.

He began expanding his instrumental palette by doubling on flute, by no means a common jazz instrument in those years. He later added oboe, bassoon and non-Western wind instruments like the shehnai and arghul. “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”

Indeed, Lateef was not merely expanding his instrumental arsenal, he was upgrading his compositional acumen. The result is a series of works that are grounded in jazz, certainly (a word/description he did not endorse), and not infrequently based on blues motifs, but also far-ranging and far-reaching. As many have pointed out, Lateef was creating, if not inventing, World Music long before the concept was known and/or imitated. It’s one thing to introduce such an unlikely instrument as the oboe into jazz songs that could still swing; Lateef was integrating sounds from the Far East into music in novel ways that even the mighty Coltrane emulated, years later. Like Sun Ra, Lateef was hearing things and imagining worlds that still seem exotic and ahead of their time; that they came in a world that was so black and white (mostly White) in the mid-to-late ’50s is staggering, bordering on inconceivable. Like the best music from our best musicians, it is also miraculous. No need for excessive description; just listen to to it.

It has always been, for me, at once exceptional and inspiring to consider Lateef, who was barely scraping by financially as a full-time musician circa ’57, road tripping from Detroit (a city he would celebrate later in his career) to The Big Apple on a random weekend to record yet another masterpiece. The fact that, later in his career and already an acknowledged master, he refused for a time to play live in clubs were alcohol and cigarette smoke were pervasive, augments his street cred. He was not faking it, and his personal life and of course his music are a living soundtrack to a life of honesty and exploration. It was, perhaps more than anything else, Yusef’s insatiable need to discover and learn that make his albums endure, that make him such a worthy role model. To be certain, any musician or artist would be wise to emulate his inimitable discipline and humility; but any human being who wants to connect with others, understand more of the world (and, inevitably, his or herself) can learn a lot from the nine decades and change of evidence Lateef supplied us. He was real, and his soulful vision will keep him amongst us so long as people are capable of paying attention.

Here are ten tracks (with two bonus live tracks that are AMAZING) for both the uninitiated and the aficionado; songs to savor and songs that hopefully inspire a deeper dive into this great man’s vast catalog.

Go peacefully and sleep well, Gentle Giant.

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Butch Warren, R.I.P. (Two Years Later)

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I know I sound like a broken record on these occasions but the simple fact of the matter is this: there are artists leaving our planet who can’t –and in some ways, shouldn’t– be replaced.

The musicians who appeared on so many classic sides cut during the mid-’50s to late-’60s (perhaps best but certainly not solely represented by the Blue Note label) are part of a critical, incomparable era in American culture. The real golden era of jazz, in terms of musicianship, influence and import, produced legends we know by one-word-names: Miles, Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Herbie

And lest I be accused of living in the past, anyone who reads this blog knows I can be counted amongst those who feel jazz –as a music, as a cultural statement, as a way of life– is as vital, encompassing and empowering as it’s ever been. I mean that, and I celebrate where we are, and wherever we’re going. It’ll be somewhere good. It always is.

Still…man, the sheer volume of unbelievable music made during that golden era: it staggers the mind. It’s a bank vault of something more valuable than cash, and the register never rings empty.

It is with sadness, but deep respect and appreciation, that we bid farewell to Butch Warren, crackerjack bassist who made crucial contributions to too many classic albums to count. (Nice obit HERE: like so many musicians, in jazz circles or otherwise, his life was not easy, further complicated by questionable decisions, and he lived longer than he might have, albeit in circumstances and conditions that could be best described as unfair, unjust or plain unacceptable. And yet, his legacy will be the indispensable masterworks he is forever a part of.)

Let’s pick five songs from five albums where he was not merely present (enough of a statement, considering the talent pool), he was a presence. Paired with the immortal Billy Higgins, as he is on three of the five songs below, there is a rhythmic swing and underpinning that can’t –and in some ways, shouldn’t– be described with words. Words are inadequate tools for the task, but the feelings that inform them never are. It is with that feeling of respect, awe and, once more, appreciation, that I bid a fond adieu to Butch, but know that I can –and often will– invite him into my world anytime I choose.

“Watermelon Man” (the original version, with an up-and-coming piano player named Herbie Hancock. And Higgins!)

“Voodoo” with the criminally overlooked and underappreciated Sonny Clark (he and Higgins do WORK on this masterpiece; one of my all-time favorites):

“Vertigo” from the classic album of the same name by Jackie McLean (!!), featuring a very young drummer named Tony Williams, who almost steals the show.

“Recorda Me” with the great Joe Henderson:

“Pentacostal Feelin'” from Free Form with trumpet badass Donald Byrd (and, again, Higgins!):

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A Century of Sound (in under 4 minutes)

Sun Ra 1968

Sun Ra 1968

“Pleasant Twilight” from the wonderfully titled My Brother The Wind, Vol. 2.

Duke Ellington on acid?

Yes, and a lot more.

It slams out of the gate big-band style, then the GREAT John Gilmore breaks it down, funk-no-fusion (more “Cold Sweat” than Coltrane), and then the band grinds to a slow-mo proto trip hop vibe.

An entire century of sound, all in under four minutes, courtesy of SUN RA, a legit (and underappreciated) American iconoclast. A national treasure for sure.

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

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New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .02: For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums of 2011 (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone fourteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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Charlie Haden R.I.P. (Revisited)

Bassist Charlie Haden

1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Giant Steps, Charles Mingus Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman’s provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes — if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane –the all-time heavyweight champion– embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

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Topic: The Album You’d Give Anything To Hear Again for The First Time

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I still remember everything about it.

Fall semester, senior year. The more I learned at college, the more I understood how little I knew. Something, obviously, was working.

I was wise, prescient or just plain lucky enough to sign up for an elective called “Introduction to Jazz”. I knew the genre was vast, intimidating and would take considerable effort to navigate; I’ll always credit this class for giving me a framework to acquaint myself, a three credit Rosetta Stone® for my Rosetta Stone. We’d gone through the century, decade by decade, and it got better as we went. Yes, Bebop was what I’d been missing all along without realizing it.

But it was what came next, the more formless expression that started creeping out of the margins like lava oozing through ancient stones, that portended obsession. Those names: Mingus, Monk, Miles, Trane. And then, as we tackled the topic of “free jazz”, a cat who had the audacity to name his 1959 (the best year in musical history, by the way) album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Ornette Coleman, the canary in the post-bop coal mine. Like all iconoclasts, initially greeted with indifference, then disgust, then fear. Chords? We don’t need no stinking chords, his compositions scoffed, a freak flag flying out of the underground into the avant-garde. I still remember how quiet the room was and how concerned my ears got: What is this? Like nothing I’d never heard or felt; a new language, a new sensation, a new way of seeing everything, that first amoeba slithering onto shore. How is it possible, I thought, to make instruments scream in agony and shriek in joy, at the same time? (And those song titles, telling everything you needed to know: “Lonely Woman”, “Congeniality”, “Focus on Sanity.”)

I walked around campus after, the autumn sky all schizophrenic yet serene with colors. And those notes I couldn’t get out of my head. This is it, I thought. This is music. This is addiction. This is love. This is the first day of the rest of my life.

From The Weeklings feature Popped Culture #2

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Bonus bliss:

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Talking Jive, Mingus and John Goodman

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Today is the day. For John Goodman, that is.

And for you, if you are inclined to check out his new book, Jive-Colored Glasses: A Jazz Memoir.

And you should be inclined.

Here’s my take, blurb-style. (Full disclosure: I happily received an advance copy of the book and even more happily offered up my praise, accordingly):

We live in curious times, where we fondly recall and/or fictionalize some of our favorite things from the so-called good old days, where Old-Fashioneds were both drinks and philosophies, but the soundtrack is something contemporary and clueless–nostalgia without the nuance and names dropped without the knowledge. So how refreshing, and timely, to have an authentic guide from the old school to explain what mattered and why. John Goodman was there, and we are fortunate to have a first-person account of the great old days, someone with the inside scoop, who can articulate what we did right, what we still haven’t figured out, and why being engaged and bearing witness is our collective obligation. Our understanding of the proverbial then-and-now is profoundly insufficient without this vital document.

More on this project, and its author, at his blog.

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In July 2013–just about exactly two years ago to the day–my review of Goodman’s book, Mingus Speaks, dropped at PopMatters. Check it out, below.

Charles Mingus did not do small.

He was a big man, with big appetites, big ambitions, big grievances, big passions, big skills, and above all, a big vision.

By any reasonable criteria, he easily ranks as one of the foremost musicians and composers in American history: the scope of his recorded works is vast, varied and awe-inspiring. He can—and should—be included on any list alongside his hero Duke Ellington, and only Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk led as many remarkable bands and produced such a staggering body of work.

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved.

That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

It is, therefore, instructive to learn more about the forces that drove Mingus, and the impulses that, at times, derailed him. He could be his own worst enemy, as the burnt bridges, ruined relationships, and botched business deals demonstrate. Still, if he occasionally terrified the musicians in his employ, he frequently drove them to do their best work. The list of artists and industry veterans who stood by him (some of whom, like his widow Sue Mingus, actively promote his legacy to this day) is considerable.

John Goodman’s Mingus Speaks is a collection of previously unpublished interviews and recollections from bandmates, club owners, and jazz critics. While the various biographies on Mingus (Gene Santoro’s Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus is especially recommended) are illuminating, and the liner notes from his albums occasionally revelatory, there can be no substitute for hearing the colossus account for himself. Beneath the Underdog, his infamous autobiography, is required reading for any Mingus (or jazz) fan, but its digressions and frequent forays into obvious fiction fail to provide sufficient perception or clarity.

In these collected interviews, mostly conducted in the early ‘70s when Mingus was rebounding from years of turmoil, we get everything we’d expect: tall tales, candid insights, score settling, and the full range of topics that fascinated and inspired him. We get, in short, Mingus’s side of the story, which is particularly poignant considering he would succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979 (at the entirely too young age of 56).

For people like myself, who can never get enough of Mingus, much of this book is an exhilarating ride, an essential addition to our understanding of what made him such a unique and enduring iconoclast. He accounts for his proficiency, and the decades of practice, false starts, frustration and triumphs. He also takes every opportunity to discuss the men who encouraged him, ranging from obscure or unheard of to acknowledged masters like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. His theories (some fascinating; some preposterous) on everything from the Watts Riots to his controversial eviction from his loft (in 1968) are like many of his compositions: breathless, all-encompassing, unswerving. His consummate abilities (as a bassist, songwriter, jazz ambassador) are acknowledged by everyone who speaks of him.

Here are a handful of the literally hundreds of quotes I could pick from, which confirm what we know and, if anything, add additional layers to a man whose heart hung on every utterance—yet often managed to remain an enigma:

Mingus is a peculiar combination of perfectionist and… someone who always wants to experiment (Dan Morgenstern).

Well, Bud (Powell), Fats (Navarro) and Bird—they’re like saints to me. They gave everything. I think they really thought they were telling the people…the message, the spirit to live (Mingus).

I don’t think there is anybody in the music field who… he has not threatened to kill at one time or another, including his best friends (Dan Morgenstern).

He’s such a beautiful man. I’m glad he doesn’t talk, man, he says more with his silence and his music (Mingus, on Monk).

I feel a divine connection with eternal life when I write. I feel like something better than me is coming out of me (Mingus).

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

What more needs to be said?

(Speaking of Mingus, readers of this blog will know I’ve had more than a little to say, and as those of us in the know already know, enough can never, ever, be said of Mingus. Get hit in your soul HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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Ornette Coleman and The First Day of the Rest of My Life (Revisited)

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Topic: The Album You’d Give Anything To Hear Again for The First Time

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I still remember everything about it.

Fall semester, senior year. The more I learned at college, the more I understood how little I knew. Something, obviously, was working.

I was wise, prescient or just plain lucky enough to sign up for an elective called “Introduction to Jazz”. I knew the genre was vast, intimidating and would take considerable effort to navigate; I’ll always credit this class for giving me a framework to acquaint myself, a three credit Rosetta Stone® for my Rosetta Stone. We’d gone through the century, decade by decade, and it got better as we went. Yes, Bebop was what I’d been missing all along without realizing it.

But it was what came next, the more formless expression that started creeping out of the margins like lava oozing through ancient stones, that portended obsession. Those names: Mingus, Monk, Miles, Trane. And then, as we tackled the topic of “free jazz”, a cat who had the audacity to name his 1959 (the best year in musical history, by the way) album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Ornette Coleman, the canary in the post-bop coal mine. Like all iconoclasts, initially greeted with indifference, then disgust, then fear. Chords? We don’t need no stinking chords, his compositions scoffed, a freak flag flying out of the underground into the avant-garde. I still remember how quiet the room was and how concerned my ears got: What is this? Like nothing I’d never heard or felt; a new language, a new sensation, a new way of seeing everything, that first amoeba slithering onto shore. How is it possible, I thought, to make instruments scream in agony and shriek in joy, at the same time? (And those song titles, telling everything you needed to know: “Lonely Woman”, “Congeniality”, “Focus on Sanity.”)

I walked around campus after, the autumn sky all schizophrenic yet serene with colors. And those notes I couldn’t get out of my head. This is it, I thought. This is music. This is addiction. This is love. This is the first day of the rest of my life.

From The Weeklings feature Popped Culture #2

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Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

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All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 10 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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Happy Birthday Chazz: Mingus at 93

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Today would have been (and, still is) Charles Mingus’s 93rd birthday.

I’ve written about him often and I’ll continue to write about him, not only because he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but his work warrants mention and constant attention.

For today, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute than the appreciation I wrote, on the occasion of his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um‘s 50th anniversary.

1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.

Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie). Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.

His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.

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The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.

Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.

Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.

Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.

For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.

For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.

“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.

For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.

A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.

A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.

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