Wednesday, June 16, 2010

album of the day: Jazz Icons: Charles Mingus Live in '64

The album of the day is actually the DVD of the day. Sue me.

I'm not a jazz historian, but I do know a few things about modern jazz. One thing I think I know is that nobody was writing like Charles Mingus in the late 50s and 60s. Many of his compositions, and many of my favorites, are programmatic tone-poems, musical depictions of events, people, places, even concepts. I believe his music owes a lot to Duke Ellington, but translated through bebop and other more modern developments, and bent a bit by Mingus' own strange imagination and sensibilities. So, where Ellington would give us a beautiful suites like "Black and Tan Fantasy" or lovely standards like "Sophisticated Lady" or "Prelude to a Kiss," and you can hear the influence of Ellington's melodies throughout Mingus' corpus, once churned through the Mingus mind, out comes something like "Meditations on Integration," a long, often discordant suite in this set.

This was the tune new to me from these 1964 studio and concert performances from Europe. The "Meditations," recorded in a studio in Belgium, runs to well over 10 minutes, has several stylistic and melodic shifts, and constant changes in rhythm, tempo, and above all, emotional meaning.

And that's the secret to Mingus, I think. His work packs an emotional wallop at times, and he was able to both musically contemplate and allow space for soloists to just blow. The overall impression, especially watching the band work out, is of a very serious and reflective approach, which just happens to also be tremendously vigorous and athletic.

And varied. On "Meditations," Mingus plays the bass by bowing, plucking, strumming, whacking the strings with the bow, scratching the strings with the bow, then with his fingers, or caressing them with his fingertips or the palm of his hand, tapping or scratching the face of the bass, tapping the strings below the bridge. Oh, and bending the strings off of the fretboard, fretting them on the side of the neck. It doesn't look like he's doing this to do it - not like, say Reid Anderson of the Bad Plus, who (this is their aesthetic, after all) just seems to be playing around with what music can be. It's purposeful, and directed toward the ideas he wants to present about integration. And they are not, not every one, all happy thoughts.

Another typical Mingus moment on the DVD: They jump into "Parkeriana," a tribute to Charlie Parker, based on Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow!" (which is based, like approximately 17% of all bebop tunes, on "I Got Rhythm"). They play the headpiece, and then the soloists all jump in and start on themes from Charlie Parker. Trumpeter Johnny Coles starts in, Mingus starts frowning, and puts a halt to the whole thing. Then Mingus rips into a furious version of "Take the A Train," which they play for 10 minutes, until, out of concern for Eric Dolphy's sanity, they cool it.

(Maybe I'll do an Eric Dolphy disc once I've recovered. Yipes. After the first number, "So Long Eric," from the Belgian date, I had to blurt out, "Well, that was great, until Eric screwed everything up!" Which he did! He was playing in entirely the wrong tempo, and in the wrong key, and for whatever reason Mingus had the band follow him, before they had to work out how to return to the actual song. Eric Dolphy is not for everyone.)

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