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Posts tagged ‘Charles Mingus’

Mingus in Germany

“When I was young, nobody told me that Duke Ellington made any money. I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved, and I followed it until I found out where it was.” Charles Mingus said that to me in the summer of 1972, at a pavement table outside in restaurant in Shepherd Market, London, during the course of a sometimes bemusing but always fascinating interview.

Two years earlier I’d gone to hear him in person for the first time at the Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village. He was torpid, listless, uninterested, all reflected in the music of his quintet. It was one of the most depressing musical experiences of my life. Ten years or so after falling in love with the turbulent sound of Blues & Roots, I was foolish enough to write a review suggesting that this giant of the music was washed up.

It was a judgement I soon came to regret. Within two years he had rediscovered much of his physical and spiritual vigour, and was once again leading bands that boiled with an energy that had its source in the leader’s soul. I was lucky enough to be present at Philharmonic Hall to hear him play an epic blues with the great tenorist Gene Ammons and then to hear several nights of a fine season at Ronnie Scott’s.

Did anyone incarnate the spirit of jazz more effectively than Mingus? The life-enhancing combination of high skill and wild spontaneity, of the most finely tuned sensibility and the deepest roots, of romantic beauty and unapologetic political commitment? All that is present throughout a four-CD set titled @Bremen 1964-75, divided between tours 11 years apart with two marvellous groups, recorded and preserved by Radio Bremen and now — although the earlier concert has been much bootlegged — officially released for the first time.

The 1964 band featured Johnny Coles on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on alto, bass clarinet and flute, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Jaki Byard on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums. Nine weeks later Dolphy would be dead, his diabetic coma misdiagnosed in a Berlin hospital; here we can listen to him in full flight. On “Parkeriana”, notes shoot out of his alto at unexpected angles like beams of light refracting in a hall of mirrors while Mingus uses his bass to push the beat in the way he did at certain medium-fast tempos. On “Fables of Faubus”, an eventful 33-minute performance that prefigures a lot of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago would later get up to, Dolphy’s bass clarinet makes useful interventions behind Coles’s long, characteristically plaintive solo before leading the piece to its climax with an extended solo of such hair-raising audacity that you can’t believe it happened almost 60 years ago. Other highlights include Byard’s introductory piano soliloquy, a typical history lesson including chunks of ragtime and stride, and Mingus’s restless exploration of “Sophisticated Lady”.

The 1975 band — with Mingus and Richmond joined by Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor) and Don Pullen (piano) — is the one that, six months earlier, had recorded the two-volume Changes for Atlantic, and the set list contains several pieces from those albums: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica”, “Sue’s Changes”, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, “Free Cell Block F, Tis Nazi USA”, Walrath’s “Black Beans and Poles” and Sy Johnson’s “For Harry Carney”. If this quintet isn’t as lairy as some of Mingus’s small combos, it produces high-level creativity at every turn, true to the leader’s vision of a music once collective in nature and a vehicle for individual character — perhaps the most important lesson that he took from his adoration of Ellington.

Walrath fires out bright-toned multi-noted lines that sound relaxed and assured even at the most demanding tempos, artfully varying his trajectory. Adams shows himself to be among the most emotionally generous of the tenorists who emerged in the wake of John Coltrane, the unaccompanied section of his solo on “Sue’s Changes” quoting exquisitely from Ornette Coleman’s “Beauty Is a Rare Thing” and demonstrating (as had Dolphy) that although Mingus often said disobliging things about the avant-garde, he was happy to incorporate the movement’s innovations when they came from musicians who’d satisfied him that they had real chops and a proper grounding.

Pullen, like Byard before him and successors such as Roland Hanna and John Foster, had the technique and the imagination to pursue a pan-stylistic vision of jazz piano. His relaxed improvisation on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” is the epitome of chilled-out “inside” improvising at a long-legged medium-slow tempo; when he extends the approach deep into the realms of abstraction, as in the dense conclusion to his “Sue’s Changes” solo, it’s clearly with the leader’s approval.

Whether in 1964 or 1975, Mingus and Richmond keep the fire burning, raising and lowering the flame at will, switching metre and tempo with wonderful understanding, developing the unique brand of swing they created together when they first joined forces in 1957. Here they can stretch out with like-minded companions in front of two sets of enthusiastic listeners, their work preserved in a set that belongs in even the most comprehensive Mingus collection.

* Charles Mingus’s @Bremen 1964 & 1975 is released on the Sunnyside label, in partnership with Radio Bremen. The terrific photograph of Mingus was taken at Montreux by the late, great David Redfern.

A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded for broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Mingus fingers

Whahay 1About 20 minutes into Whahay’s set at the Vortex last night, Paul Rogers dug out a small steel cylinder and slipped it over the little finger of his left hand. A few seconds later he was playing bottleneck double bass: a fantastic sound.

It helped that he was playing his seven-string instrument, a beautiful thing with sloping shoulders, custom-built for him by a luthier in Nîmes. The fifth string is where the extra string on a five-string bass can usually be found, tuned to B, a fourth below the lowest string on a conventional instrument. The sixth and seventh are at the upper end of the register, tuned to C and F. It also has 14 sympathetic strings, set longitudinally under the bridge and the tailpiece.

The result bears some resemblance to a medieval viola da gamba, or the Italian viola bastarda of the 16th and 17th centuries. And in Rogers’ hands it can sound not just like a contrabass but like a cello, a lute, an oud, a finger-picked acoustic guitar, and sometimes — when he grips the strings with the fingers of both hands before wrenching them violently away in opposite directions — like an explosion in a factory making industrial-strength rubber bands.

Rogers moved to London from his native Chester in the mid-’70s and was regular on the British improvising scene, notably in various groups with Keith Tippett, John Stevens, Elton Dean and others, for more than a decade before moving first to the US and then to France, where he has lived since 1992 (currently in Le Mans). He had the seven-string bass made because he wanted something lighter and more travel-friendly than his usual instrument, but it has given him an enlarged vocabulary that is brilliantly displayed in the context of his current group.

Whahay is a trio in which Rogers is joined by the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Robin Fincker, who was born in France but has lived for several years in London, where he is a member of the Loop Collective, and the drummer Fabien Duscombs, who first met Fincker when they were both studying in Toulouse. Their newly released debut album applies the techniques of free improvisation to the music of Charles Mingus, a project they’ve been working on for a couple of years.

Here’s a way of describing their sound and approach. If you drew a line from Mingus’s Blues & Roots to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, and called the distance x, and then continued the line until it reached Whahay, the distance between the first and third points would be something like 2.5x. That’s an attempt to explain the method by which Mingus’s tunes — including “Better Git It In Your Soul”, “Bird Calls”, “Ecclusiastics” and “Pithencanthropus Erectus” — are subjected not just to extreme abstraction but to the extended instrumental techniques that have evolved since Ayler’s heyday in the mid-’60s.

The album is terrific, but the gig was an absolute monster. After a slightly muted start, in which they sounded unexpectedly pastoral (more like a Jimmy Giuffre trio than an Ayler band), the three musicians hit their stride and didn’t pause for an hour, moving in and out of time, slipping easily from three-way conversations to duos to monologues, picking up cues with near-telepathic perception and showing how far they have advanced their interplay since the album was recorded in the spring.

Duscombs is an unusual player who seems constantly intent on taking his kit by surprise: his sticks appear to recoil from the playing surfaces, pulling the sound out of the startled drums and cymbals rather than hammering it in. Fincker, the least obviously assertive member of the group, is a hugely resourceful improviser who always found something interesting to add. Rogers was consistently astonishing in his combination of physicality and delicacy, whether sawing away with his big German bow or using all his fingers to tap out a filigree of shimmering harmonics.

What would Mingus have thought of it all? He was notoriously sceptical of free music. One summer’s day in 1972, over lunch at a table outside a cafe in Shepherd Market, he gave me a version of his standard line: “Some painters draw seriously, they draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it, and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and glared at me. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”

What Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs did last night was real enough. I think Mingus would have loved it.

* Whahay is distributed in the UK by the Babel label.