Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review: Charles Mingus at Cornell

Charles Mingus Sextet, Cornell 1964 (2 CDs)
Blue Note (2007)

Charles Mingus, bass
Johnny Coles, trumpet
Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone
Jaki Byard, piano
Dannie Richmond, drums

Recorded March 18, 1964 at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

ATFW You (Byard) (4:26)
Sophisticated Lady (Duke Ellington) (4:23)
Fables of Faubus (29:42)
Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk (15:05)
Take the "A" Train (Billy Strayhorn) (17:26)

Meditations (31:23)
So Long Eric (15:33)
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (Olcott-Graff-Ball) (6:07)
Jitterbug Waltz (Thomas "Fats" Waller) (9:59)

All compositions by Mingus except as noted

Like the 2005 releases Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker), Cornell 1964 is a newly-discovered concert recording. And as with those 2005 releases, the performance just happens to be extraordinary. I'm past the two-dozen mark when it comes to buying Mingus recordings, and I think that Cornell 1964 is the most exciting Mingus music I've heard.

What a concert those lucky students were given:

"ATFW You": Jaki Byard's fleet, witty parade of Art Tatumisms and Fats Wallerisms.

"Sophisticated Lady": for bass. Mingus never stopped paying tribute to Duke Ellington.

"Fables of Faubus": A Weillian send-up of Orval Faubus, segregationist governor of Arkansas. The lyrics here are, alas, inaudible. (A sample: "Two, four, six, eight, they brainwash and teach you hate.") A very lengthy "Fables," dipping into various streams of musical Americana along the way. Here, as elsewhere, Mingus and Richmond are the most inventive bass-and-drums pairing in jazz, changing tempos and textures and thereby pushing soloists to dig deeper: the rhythm section as personal trainer.

"Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk": One of Mingus's most beautiful compositions, with overtones of Ellington, "Blues in the Night," and "Body and Soul."

"Take the 'A' Train": I think it's here that everything rises to a very high level of energy. As Clifford Jordan begins his second chorus, Mingus calls to Johnny Coles and Eric Dolphy: "Join in," and the band takes off. Jordan is the great surprise on this performance and on the rest of the recording, playing with greater intensity and freedom than on the European tour recordings (or at least the ones that I've heard). And Coles, who missed much of the European tour with a stomach ulcer, is brilliant here and elsewhere. I'm only now realizing that he was an influence on Lester Bowie, one of my favorite trumpeters.

"Meditations": like "Orange," a composition in markedly different sections. Particularly powerful solos from Byard and Dolphy (bass clarinet).

"So Long Eric": Twelve-bar blues. Mingus plants the endpin of his bass in the floor, and not for the first time: "Well, we got several holes now." The tempo here is slower than on other recordings of this tune. Mingus calls to Johnny Coles: "Come on, Johnny." He calls to Jaki Byard: "By yourself," and bass and drums drop out. No problem: Byard turns into Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. It's Clifford Jordan's turn to solo: "I know you swing," says Mingus. And before Dannie Richmond's solo: "Go!"

Two encores follow, the first featuring "the only Irishman in the band," "Johnny O'Coles." (Note the concert date.) And finally, a giddy, slightly wobbly "Jitterbug Waltz," the elegant Fats Waller melody that Eric Dolphy loved to play.

For a newcomer to Mingus's music, Cornell 1964 is a perfect start: three major Mingus compositions ("Fables," "Orange," "Meditations"), some blues, some strong evidence of Mingus's reverence for his musical ancestors, and a charming novelty, all played by what many listeners regard as Mingus's greatest band.

What are you waiting for? Go!

Cornell 1964, with 18 minutes of streaming music (Blue Note)

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Charles Mingus in Norway
I dream of Mingus

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