PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 10, 2006

The Mighty Mingus

by Jim Newsom

Charles Mingus
East Coasting

Shout! Factory

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Don’t Be Afraid…the music of Charles Mingus


Charles Mingus was one of the great jazz composers and bassists. His career began with stints in the bands of Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong in the early ‘40s when he was barely out of his teens. He went on to become a monster in the jazz world, both as a musician and as a larger-than-life personality known for his anger at racial injustice and his one-man war with the music industry.

His 1959 masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um, is an essential in any jazz collection, and Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady are also required listening. East Coasting, recorded in August, 1957, is not as well known, but its resurrection as part of Shout! Factory’s reissue program of classic albums from the catalog of the long defunct Bethlehem record label has its share of masterful moments, compositionally and in its arrangements, that should bring it a deserved reevaluation and overdue recognition.

Many of the standard Mingus musical tricks are on display here, from the finely crafted melodic statements to the free-flowing group improvisations. “Celia” foreshadows “Self Portrait in Three Colors” on Mingus Ah Um, the title track cooks with fine-tuned bop precision, and “West Coast Ghost” purrs with echoes of Ellington but with that cross-horn interplay so distinctive to the bassist’s writing. The opening harmonies of “Conversation” are almost Oliver Nelson-ish, but devolve soon enough into the trademark phrase trading commonplace in Mingus’ music.

The sextet lineup includes Mingus stalwarts Jimmy Knepper on trombone and Dannie Richmond behind the drums, while the piano chair is occupied by Bill Evans just months before he joined Miles Davis for what would be a seminal but short lived partnership ultimately yielding Kind of Blue.

When I think of Charles Mingus, I think primarily of sextet and septet settings like East Coasting, but his writing was so rich and full that there is plenty for a big band arranger to chew on. In fact his widow, Sue Mingus, has kept the Mingus Big Band going since the early ‘90s. Thus inspired, Wynton Marsalis decided to put his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to the test on a program of Mingus tunes arranged by trombonist Ron Westray, and the result as heard on Don’t Be Afraid… is a marvelous musical feast.

It’s hard to generate the spontaneity and abandon so crucial to Mingus’ music with a fifteen piece band, but Westray and Marsalis have succeeded in producing a remarkable approximation. The players are some of the best on the New York scene, and the arrangements manage to show the wit, irreverence, tumultuous cacophony and simultaneous harmonic complexity without resorting to outright mimickry. It’s a courageous feat that succeeds spectacularly.

Eschewing obvious hits like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Better Git It in Your Soul” from Mingus Ah Um in favor of the seldom heard “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too” from Let My Children Hear Music and three tunes---“Dizzy Moods,” “Tijuana Gift Shop,” and “Los Mariachis”---from New Tijuana Moods, Marsalis and company explore the vast richness found in the legendary bassman’s songbook. Two lengthy suites, “Black Saint & the Sinner Lady (parts 1 & 2)” and “Meditation on Integration,” serve as the soulful heart of this recording, challenging the listener while displaying the invigorating compositional intricacies that can be unleashed in a jazz context.

Anything that brings the music of Charles Mingus to a wider audience is OK with me. In the case of these two releases, the rewards are many for those willing to open their ears. I hope Wynton has some of these pieces on the setlist when he brings the LCJO to the Virginia Arts Festival next spring.

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