Charles Mingus

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Krentz Ratings:
Jazz At The Massey Hall (1953) 7/10
Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) 8/10
The Clown (1957) 6.5/10
Tijuana Moods (1957) 7.5/10
Mingus Ah Um (1959) 8/10
Blues and Roots (1959) 8/10
Dynasty (1959) 5/10
Presents (1960) 8/10
Mingus (1960) 6/10
Town Hall Concert (1962) 6/10
Oh Yeah (1961) 7.5/10
Epitaph (1962) 8/10 (posthumous)
The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (1963) 9/10
Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963) 5/10
Mingus Plays Piano (1963) 4/10
Great Concert of Charles Mingus (1964) 5.5/10
Let My Children Hear Music (1971) 8/10
Jazz in Detroit (1973) 5/10

The art of double bass player Charlie Mingus (1922) was rooted in the same general rediscovery of blues and gospel music as hard bop, but Mingus stood out for his highbrow studies on group improvisation and jazz composition. His music was schizophrenic in that it both harked back to the New Orleans roots of jazz and looked forward to progressive chamber jazz and "third stream" jazz. His compositions ranged wildly in mood and dynamics, from puntillistic counterpoint to massive Wagner-ian explosions. He rarely employed great soloists, preferring dedicated session-men to stars with a strong personality, another way of emphasizing the compositional versus the improvisational nature of his art. Mingus was the first jazz musician since Ellington who could compete with classical composers. A proud intellectual, he publicly despised the decadent habits of many jazz stars and even the barbaric attitude of the jazz audience (compared with the audience of classical music). A precursor of indie music, Mingus founded his own label (1952) to avoid the commercial pressure of the major labels.

Raised in Los Angeles, he was also a rare specimen in a jazz world that was increasingly centered around New York. A child prodigy, he composed a challenging Half-Mast Inhibition (1941) when he was just 19 years old. He cut his teeth with Louis Armstrong (1942) and Lionel Hampton (1947-48), but had little in common with the swing era. He first displayed his true persona in a trio formed in 1950 by xylophonist Kenneth "Red Norvo" Norville with guitarist Tal Farlow. Moving to New York, he mixed with the bebop avantgarde, playing a famous date with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Max Roach, immortalized on Jazz at Nassey Hall (may 1953). He also appered on records by Bud Powell (1953), Charlie Parker (1953) and Paul Bley (1953).

Jazz at Massey Hall (may 1953) documents a legendary performance with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. It contains versions of Juan Tizol's Perdido, Thelonious Monk's All the Things You Are, Tadd Dameron's Hot House, Dizzy Gillespie's Salt Peanuts and A Night in Tunisia.

He established himself as one of jazz music's main visionaries with Pithecanthropus Erectus (january 1956), recorded by a quintet that featured Jackie McLean on alto sax, Mal Waldron on piano, a tenor saxophonist and a drummer. The highlight of the album was the ten-minute four-movement tone poem Pithecanthropus Erectus (partially free-form), that influenced the birth of free jazz, but the album also contained a 15-minute Love Chant, a moody and cryptic suite that confirmed his narrative gift, and an eight-minute version of Gershwin's A Foggy Day turned into a mini-symphony of city noises (all simulated by the instruments).

The quintet session of The Clown (march 1957) debuted Dannie Richmond on drums and Jimmy Knepper on trombone. The twelve-minute Haitian Fight Song was another tour de force of dynamics, albeit rooted in the polyphony of New Orleans' street bands (also a bassist's tour de force), matched by the closing The Clown, while Reincarnation of a Lovebird was an eight-minute tribute to bebop and to the tragedy of his greatest icon (Charlie Parker).

Tijuana Moods (june 1957), with even a vocalist and castanets, contained two ten-minute compositions that overflowed with intricate sonic events, Ysabel's Table Dance and Los Mariachis. And the list of extended experiments started growing rapidly: the ten-minute West Coast Ghost for a sax-trumpet-trombone-piano sextet, off East Coasting (august 1957), the eleven-minute Scenes In The City for jazz ensemble and narrating voice, off Scenes In The City (october 1957), the twelve-minute Nostalgia in Times Square for alto-tenor-piano quintet, off Jazz Portraits (january 1959).

Mingus Three (july 1957) documents a session with Danny Richmond (drums) and Hampton Hawes (piano).

Mingus also composed music used for the soundtrack of John Cassavetes's Shadows (1959).

Blues and Roots (february 1959) was, instead, a post-modernist tribute to the sound of New Orleans, an exercise in disassembling the cliches of a genre and rebuilding it from an analytic perspective (best the gospel-y Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and the bluesy Moanin'). None of the exuberance was lost, but the harmonic complexity was certainly not what the old New Orleans bands had in mind. Basically, it was an entire album of pieces similar to the previous Haitian Fight Song.

More tributes to his idols surfaced on another accessible set, Mingus Ah Um (may 1959), scored for septet. Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul was still in the gospel vein of its predecessor, while Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was a moving elegy for Lester Young and other pieces were dedicated to Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. The longer Fables of Faubus was one of his first forays into politics.

After Dynasty (november 1959), that recycled the same ideas, Mingus formed a quartet with Richmond, trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Eric Dolphy to record Presents Charles Mingus (october 1960). Folk Forms No. 1 expanded his revisitation of New Orleans into a dreamy and sometimes nightmarish twelve-minute jam, while the 15-minute What Love adopted the anarchic stance of free jazz and a "conversational" approach to the double bass. After all, Mingus' quartet was modeled after Ornette Coleman's quartet that had inaugurated free jazz.

Pre-Bird (may 1960) documents sessions conducted by Gunther Schuller with Eric Dolphy and John LaPorta (alto sax), Danny Bank (baritone sax), Charles McCracken (cello), Dannie Richmond (drums), Robert DiDomenica (flute), Harry Schulman (oboe), George Scott and Stick Evans (percussion), Paul Bley and Sir Roland Hanna (piano), Bill Barron, Booker Ervin, Joe Farrell and Yusef Lateef (all on tenor sax), Charles Greenlee, Eddie Bert, Jimmy Knepper and Slide Hampton (all on trombone), Clark Terry, Hobart Dotson, Marcus Belgrave and Richard Williams (all on trumpet), Don Butterfield on tuba and Lorraine Cusson on vocals.

Other experiments of these years were the 20-minute MDM for an eleven-piece ensemble (featuring Dolphy and Paul Bley on piano), off Mingus (october 1960), Peggy's Blue Skylight (november 1961), and especially Epitaph (1962), his most ambitious score, first documented on the Town Hall Concert (october 1962) but fully reconstructed only posthumously (by Andrew Homzy of Concordia University) and first performed by Gunther Schuller with a 30-musician orchestra in 1989 (a two-hour version).

Oh Yeah (november 1961) explored a different facet of Mingus' persona: the dadaist joker. Scored for a sextet with Knepper, Richmond, Mingus on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, Booker Ervin on tenor sax and Roland Kirk on flute and other instruments, mid-size pieces such as Hog Callin' Blues, Devil Woman, Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me and Ecclusiastics took the postmodernist approach of Blues and Roots to an almost parodistic and paroxysmal extreme, while Passions Of A Man was again flirting with noise. It was a deviant form of traditional jazz, that kept intact the envelope while scientifically demolishing the interior.

The narrative dynamic typical of Mingus' extended works is the essence of The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (january 1963), ostensibly a six-movement ballet (divided into three "tracks" and three "modes") for big band (the three modes were squeezed into a single 17-minute track on the vynil version), and one of the masterpieces of 20th century's music. Scored for an orchestra of two trumpets, trombone, tuba, flute, baritone sax, guitar, alto (Charlie Mariano), piano (Jaki Byard), bass and drums, and painstakingly assembled by Mingus (even overdubbing several passages), it was, by definition, an exercise in colors: Mingus juxtaposed groups of instruments to maximize the contrast of tones, while using a shifting dynamic to lure ever-changing textures out of that jarring counterpoint. The resulting music was highly emotional, bordering on neurotic, merging the ancestral frustration of black slaves with the modern alienation of the urban middle class. The sense of universal tragedy was increased by the facts that instruments were clearly simulating human voices, whether the joyful singing of Mariano's sax or the sorrowful murmur of trumpet and trombone or the ghostly howls of tuba and baritone sax. The story opens with the bleak Track A - Solo Dancer, slides into the orchestral Track B - Duet Solo Dancers (reminiscent of Ellington) and delves into the melodic fantasy of Track C - Group Dancers, with piano and flute sculpting the leitmotiv. The "modes", Mode D - Trio And Group Dancers, Mode E - Single Solos And Group Dance and Mode F - Group And Solo Dance, wed hard bop, classical music and flamenco.

After a work of so much depth and class, Mingus paid tribute to himself on Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (september 1963), a revisitation of his popular themes, and toyed with the piano on Mingus Plays Piano (june 1963). The 1964 sextet with Eric Dolphy (also Clifford Jordan on tenor sax, Jaki Byard on piano, Johnny Coles on trumpet) yielded extended live jams such as Parkeriana, Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk Meditations on Integration, and So Long Eric, all of them included on The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (april 1964).

Teo Macero helped Mingus assemble the orchestra for Let My Children Hear Music (october 1971), his most daring attempt at fusing two such antithetical forms of art as classical music and free jazz. The program (The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers, the intricate (albeit improvised) Adagio Ma Non Troppo, Don't Be Afraid The Clown's Afraid Too, the breathtaking Hobo Ho, The Chill Of Death with narrating voice, The I Of Hurricane Sue) was as frantic as a Charles Ives symphony and as massive as a Wagner opera.

The live The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott (august 1972) contains a 30-minute version of Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk , the 29-minute Mind-Reader's Convention In Milano (AKA Number 29), a 36-minute version of Fables Of Faubus and a 19-minute version of The Man Who Never Sleeps performed with Charles McPherson (alto sax), Roy Brooks (drums), John Foster (piano) and Bobby Jones (tenor sax and clarinet)

The five-disc box-set Jazz In Detroit /Strata Concert Gallery/ 46 Selden (february 1973), only rediscovered in 2017, documents the Charles Mingus Quintet: Roy Brooks (drums), John Stubblefield (tenor sax), Joe Gardner (trumpet) and Don Pullen (piano).

His last major composition were: Opus III (october 1973) for quintet (George Adams on tenor, Don Pullen on piano), Sue's Changes (december 1974) for quintet (George Adams on tenor, Don Pullen on piano, Jack Walrath on trumpet), Todo Modo (april 1976) for large ensemble, Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (march 1977) for large ensemble.

The four-disc boxset Bremen 1964 & 1975 contains live performances of april 1964 (a 26-minute Hope So Eric, better known as So Long Eric, a 33-minute Fables Of Faubus, a 22-minute Parkeriana and a 25-minute Meditations On Integration) with Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute and clarinet), Dannie Richmond (drums), Jaki Byard (piano), Clifford Jordan (tenor sax) and Johnny Coles (trumpet), and of july 1975 (notably a 32-minute Sue's Changes) with Pullen (piano), Jack Walrath (trumpet) and George Adams (tenor sax).

As a bassist, Mingus had developed a style that turned the instrument into something like a piano, capable of playing both the bass rhythm and the countermelody. But his achievements as a virtuoso pale compared with his achievements as a composer. A brain that was both an encyclopedia of jazz music and a laboratory of genetic synthesis had yielded the first great postmodernist artist of jazz.

Mingus died in january 1979.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Simone Simionato)

L'arte del contrabbassista Charles Mingus (1922) e' fondata nella stessa riscoperta del blues e del gospel come l'hard-bop, tuttavia Mingus si distingue grazie ai suoi studi da intellettuale su improvvisazione di gruppo e composizione jazz. La sua musica e' schizofrenica nel senso che si volta all'indietro per rintracciare le radici del jazz a New Orleans e nello stesso momento tende al futuro verso il jazz progressivo da camera e la "terza corrente" del jazz. Le sue composizioni variano ampiamente in tono e dinamiche, da contrappunto puntillistico ad enormi esplosioni wagneriane. Ingaggio' grandi solisti solo di rado, preferendo session-men professionali e dedicati piuttosto che stelle con una forte personalita'; un altro modo per enfatizzare l'aspetto composizionale della sua arte rispetto alla improvvisazione. Mingus e' il primo musicista jazz dopo Duke Ellington che puo' competere con i compositori classici. Intellettuale orgoglioso, depreco' pubblicamente le abitudini decadenti di molte stelle del jazz, e persino la barbarie del pubblico jazz rispetto a quello della musica classica.

Precursore della musica indipendente, Mingus fondo' nel 1952 la sua casa discografica personale, per sfuggire alle pressioni commerciali delle firme maggiori. L'essere cresciuto a Los Angeles lo rendeva una figura ulteriormente rara, in un mondo jazz sempre piu' centrato a New York. Prodigio precoce, compose una impegnativa Half-Mast Inhibition (1941) a soli diciannove anni. Si fece le ossa suonando per Louis Armstrong (1942) e Lionel Hampton (1947-48), ma aveva ben poco da condividere con l'era dello swing. Ebbe modo di mostrare la sua vera personalita' per la prima volta in un trio formato nel 1950 dallo xilofonista Kenneth "Red Norvo" Norville con il chitarrista Tal Farlow. A New York si mischio' con l'avanguardia bebop, celebre e' il concerto a cui prese parte con Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell a Max Roach, immortalato in Jazz at Nassey Hall (maggio 1953). Fece inoltre la sua apparizione in album di Bud Powell (1953), Charlie Parker (1953) e Paul Bley (1953). S'impose come uno dei grandi visionari dell'epoca con Pitecanthropus Erectus (gennaio 1956), eseguito da un quintetto con Jackie McLean al sax alto, Mal Waldron al piano, un sassofonista tenore e un batterista. Tra le composizioni spicca il poema di dieci minuti in quattro movimenti Pitecanthropus Erectus (in parte in forma libera), che influenzo' la nascita del free jazz. L'album conteneva tuttavia pure Love Chant, una suite di atmosfere misteriose di quindici minuti che confermava le doti narrative di Mingus; e una versione di otto minuti della gershwiniana A Foggy Day, trasfomata in una mini sinfonia di suoni urbani (realizzati con gli strumenti). La sessione per quintetto di The Clown (marzo 1957) segno' il debutto di Dennie Richmond alla batteria e Jimmy Knepper al trombone. Haitian Fight Song, di dodici minuti, e' un altro tour de force di dinamiche (e di basso), se pur fondato nella polifonia caratteristica delle band di strada di New Orleans. Non e' da meno quanto a complessita' The Clown, mentre Reincarnation of a Lovebird e' un tributo di otto minuti al bebop e alla tragedia del suo piu' illustre rappresentante, Charlie Parker. Tijuana Moods (giugno 1957), comprendente persino vocalist e nacchere, contiene due composizioni di dieci minuti traboccanti di intricati eventi sonori: Ysabel's Table Dance e Los Mariachis. E la lista di lunghi esperimenti comincia ad allungasi con rapidita'. West Coast Ghost (dieci minuti) per sestetto con sax tromba trombone piano, da East Coasting (agosto 1957); Scenes In The City (undici minuti) per orchestra jazz e voce narrante, da Scenes In The City (ottobre 1957); Nostalgia in Times Square (dodici minuti) per qintetto pianistico con sax alto e tenore, da Jazz Portraits (gennaio 1959). Blues and Roots (febbraio 1959) era invece un tributo postmodernista al suono di New Orleans, un esercizio di smantellamento di un genere e ricostruzione dello stesso da una prospettiva analitica (le migliori canzoni sono Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, in stile gospel, e il blues Moanin'). Tutta l'esuberanza della musica di Mingus resta qui intatta, tuttavia a livello di complessita' armonica il risultato non e' certo quello che le vecchie band di New Orleans avevano in mente. In sostanza si tratta di un album composto interamente di pezzi simili alla precedente Haitian Fight Song.

Altri tributi ai suoi idoli appaiono in un'altra accessibile raccolta, Mingus Ah Um (maggio 1959), per settetto. Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul e' ancora un prodotto della vena gospel che caratterizza il precedente album, mentre Goodbye Pork Pie Hat e' una commovente elegia per Lester Young. Altri pezzi sono dedicati a Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton e Duke Ellinghton. Fables of Faubus, piu' lunga delle precedenti, e' una delle sue prime venture nella politica.

Dopo il riciclo delle stesse idee in Dynasty (novembre 1959), Mingus forma un quartetto con Richmond, il trombettista Ted Curson e Eric Dolphy al sax per registrare Presents Charles Mingus (ottobre 1960). Folk Forms No. 1 espandeva la sua rivisitazione di New Orleans in una jam onirica e talvolta da incubo, di dodici minuti. What Love di quindici minuti presenta la caratteristca anarchia del free jazz e un approccio "convenzionale" al contrabbasso. Dopo tutto, il quartetto di Mingus era modellato su quello di Ornette Coleman che aveva inventato il free jazz.

Altri esperimenti: MDM, di venti minuti, per orchestra di undici componenti (con Dolphy e Paul Bley al piano) da Mingus (ottobre 1960); Peggy's Blue Skylight (novembre 1961) e sopratutto Epitaph (1962), la sua composizione piu' ambiziosa, documentata per la prima volta in Town Hall Concert (ottobre 1962) ma ricostruita nella sua completezza (due ore) solo dopo la morte di Mingus nel 1989.

Oh Yeah (novembre 1961) ha la sua origine in un'altro lato della personalita' di Mingus: il buffone dadaista. Le composizioni sono per un sestetto con Knepper, Richmond, Mingus al piano, Doug Watkins al basso, Booker Ervin al sax tenore e Roland Kirk al flauto e altri strumenti. Pezzi di media durata quali Hog Callin' Blues, Devil Woman, Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Athomic Bomb On Me e Ecclusiastics portarono l'approccio postmodernista di Blues and Roots a un estremo parodistico e parossistico, mentre Passion Of A Man faceva l'occhiolino al noise. Forma deviata di jazz tradizionale, le sperimentazioni di Mingus sono musica che ne mantiene intatta la forma mentre lo demolisce in modo scientifico nella sua struttura interna.

La dinamica narrativa tipica delle opere estese di Mingus e' l'essenza di The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (gennaio 1963), un balletto in sei movimenti (diviso in tre "pezzi" e tre "modi") per ampia band (i tre modi vennero concentrati in un'unica traccia di diciassette minuti nel vinile), e uno dei capolavori della musica del ventesimo secolo. Composta per un'orchestra con due trombe, trombone, tuba, flauto, sax baritono, chitarra, sax alto (Charlie Mariano), piano (Jaki Bayard), basso e batteria, e puntigliosamente architettata da Mingus (che sovraincide certi passaggi), e' per definizione un esperimento sui colori. Mingus giustappone gruppi di strumenti per rendere con la massima evidenza il contrasto di toni, usando nello stesso momento una dinamica volubile per portare alla superfice testure in continuo cambiamento, fuori dal magmatico contrappunto della composizione. La musica che ne risulta e' molto emotiva, rasenta la neurosi, incorpora l'ancestrale frustrazione degli schiavi neri con l'alienazione della classe borghese. Il senso di tragedia universale e' aumentato dal fatto che gli strumenti imitano chiaramente voci umane, che sia il canto gioioso del sax di Mariano o il mormorio doloroso di tromba e trombone o gli spettrali ululati di tuba e sax baritono. La storia si apre con la desolata Track A - Solo Dancer, scivola nell'orchestrale Track B - Duet Solo Dancers (reminiscente di Elligton) e finisce a scavare nella fantasia melodica di Track C - Group Dancers, con piano e flauto a definire il motivo ricorrente. I modi (Mode D - Trio And Group Dancers, Mode E - Single Solos And Group Dance e Mode F - Group And Solo Dance) fondono hard bop, classica e flamenco.

Dopo un lavoro di tale profondita' e classe, Mingus paga tributo a se' stesso in Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (settembre 1963), revisitazione dei suoi temi popolari, e si diverte al piano in Mingus Plays Piano (giugno 1963). Il sestetto del 1964 con Eric Dolphy (oltre a Clifford Jordan al sax tenore, Jaki Byard al piano, Johnny Coles alla tromba) frutto' lunghe jam live come Parkeriana, Orange Was the color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk, Meditations on Integration e So Long Eric, tutte incluse in The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (aprile 1964).

Teo Macero aiuto' Mingus a mettere in piedi l'orchestra per Let My Children Hear Music (ottobre 1971), il piu' coraggioso tentativo del contrabbassista di fondere due forme d'arte cosi' antitetiche come la musica classica e il free jazz. Il programma consisteva di The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers, l'intricato (se pur improvvisato) Adagio Ma Non Troppo, Don't Be Afraid The Clown's Afraid Too, lo sfiancante Hobo Ho, The Chill Of Death con voce narrante, The I Of Hurricane Sue. L'opera e' furibonda come una sinfonia di Charles Ives e ha una mole degna di Wagner. Le sue ultime grandi composizioni: Opus III (ottobre 1973) per quintetto (George Adams al sax tenore, Don Pullen al piano); Sue's Changes (dicembre 1974) per quintetto (George Adams, Don Pullen, Jack Walrath alla tromba); Todo Modo (aprile 1976) per orchestra, come pure per orchestra e' Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (marzo 1977).

Da bassista, Mingus ha sviluppato uno stile per cui il contrabbasso diventa qualcosa come un piano, capace di suonare sia la parte ritmica che il controcanto. Tuttavia, i suoi risultati come virtuoso sono nulla comparati alle vette raggiunte da compositore. La sua mente era sia una enciclopedia di musica jazz, sia un laboratorio di sintesi genetica. Un tale ingegno produsse il primo grande artista postmoderno della storia del jazz.

Charles Mingus mori' nel gennaio del 1979.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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