A New Mingus Concert

When I think of jazz, I think of Charles Mingus. This is silly, I know. Jazz is so much more than the music of the late bassist and composer. And yet there is something so protean about his approach to the music that whenever I hear his stuff I think the spirit in this music is what jazz should always aspire to. If I had to tell a Martian what Mingus was all about, I would start with two words: raw and sophisticated, because Mingus always managed to be both things at once. And then I would sit that alien down and play "Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy—Cornell 1964."

The contents of this two-CD concert album, just released on Blue Note, lay undiscovered until they were recently discovered by the composer's widow. What a find. The band on this date is the same seminal group that in Paris a month later, minus trumpet player Johnny Coles (sidelined with a stomach ulcer), would record the indelible "Great Concert of Charles Mingus." The personnel on the Cornell date included Coles; Eric Dolphy on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet; Clifford Jordan on tenor sax; Jaki Byard on piano; Dannie Richmond on drums and Mingus on bass. Given the big band sounds and textures generated by these gentlemen, it's worth noting that there were only six of them onstage. For example, the opening movement of "Meditations" (this was one of the earliest performances, if not the earliest, of this extraordinarily beautiful, galvanic work) kicks off with a delicate, Debussy-worthy melody delineated by flute paired with arco bass—and for a moment or two you wonder, where did these extra musicians come from? But that was Mingus: he knew how to get the maximum out of just about everyone he ever hired. And having the meteoric Dolphy in the lineup, well, there's no math that can measure what he brought with him.

The playlists for the two dates are nearly identical. On both occasions the band played the retrospectively ominously titled "So Long Eric" (when he wrote this piece Mingus was merely distressed that Dolphy was leaving the band to live in Europe; what no one foresaw was that he would die suddenly in a diabetic coma three months later), "Fables of Faubus," "Meditations," "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk," Byard's "ATFW (Art Tatum, Fats Waller)" and a Mingus solo on his hero Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." In Paris they played "Parkeriana," Mingus's salute to Charlie Parker. At Cornell they omitted the Parker tribute and subbed Ellington's theme song, "Take the A Train," Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" and, playing a day after St. Patrick's Day, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Perhaps that chestnut is as good a place as any to start unpacking the treasures captured on these discs. It sounds like a joke, until they begin to play, and in the first few bars you know you're not hearing just another cover of a standard. Mingus leaps in with an insistent, propulsive bass pattern that brings things to an almost instant boil under Coles's opening solo, and from there the intensity never flags as he pushes everyone to deliver, right through to Richmond's final rimshot. The effect is an urgency that this waltz has probably never had before or since. Here, as elsewhere, he and Byard and Richmond work with sublime empathy, laying down a foundation that would give confidence to any frontman. At the same time, the propulsiveness generated by this trio gives the horn men no rest. The stop-on-a-dime tempo changes, the sudden shifts in mood, the alteration of textures—not from song to song but inside each number—depends on a level of alertness that would drive lesser musicians right off the bandstand, if not right out of their minds.

The push-pull of improvisation over fixed forms is the mainspring of jazz, and no bandleader, except Ellington and maybe Gil Evans, was a match for Mingus when it came to balancing arranged passages against solos. Almost never does a player simply solo over chord changes. Instead, around every solo Mingus sets the rest of the band to work adding fills, counterpoint passages and deftly worked out harmonies. Some of this—and you can hear him shouting encouragement and cues to the band in the middle of most songs—seems worked out on the fly. Of course, pieces—you can't really call them songs—such as "Fables of Faubus" and "Meditations" are so long and complicated, replete with so many changes in melody, mood and tempo, that they amount to pocket symphonies (and they're deep pockets). Nobody, no matter how talented, makes music like this without a lot of prep. And yet the sheer joy of people making music together is so palpable that if you didn't know better you'd think the whole thing was simply produced spontaneously, by angels maybe, geniuses certainly.

It is pointless, when the music is of the quality found in the Cornell and Paris dates, to say one is better than the other. What is interesting is the change in density and complexity added by the presence of Coles. The Paris concert has a leaner, more spacious sound. The music at Cornell, altered by the presence of a single player, is more baroque, more intricate. And Coles adds another element with his soloing. Of the three hornmen, he is by far the most reserved. The coolness of his attack, contrasted against the ferocity of Jordan and Dolphy, sets up a bittersweet tension unlike anything in the full-bore Paris date. So the either/or question isn't really relevant. What we've got here, with the new evidence of the Cornell concert, is a pair of snapshots of a working band. The two perspectives only deepen our appreciation of this outfit. You would have counted yourself blessed to be present on either night.

A quarter of a century after his death, Mingus's place in the jazz pantheon is unshakable. His anger, his mental troubles, even his engagement with the issues of his time, are long forgotten by most listeners. (Quick: who was Orval Faubus?) All that survives is the music, undimmed by time, more majestic than ever. If you listen you can hear his struggles. All the heartbreak and fury are there, along with unparalled joy and exuberance. Mingus's jubilance buoys every number. He had a great band and he had given them great music to play. A great composer (anyone can hum a Mingus melody), a brilliant arranger, a levitational bassist and a fierce, demanding bandleader—he contained multitudes. In his music you can hear the gospel tent, the street-corner band, the heat of swing, the cool of bop and always and everywhere, the blues in all its guises—and without much trouble you can hear what he learned from Stravinsky and Bartok and Debussy. He had big ears. The Cornell concert neither adds nor subtracts from his legend, but when music is this good, you can never have enough.