Mingus In The ’70s
Charles Mingus might be the ultimate example of someone who’s “jazz famous.” Within jazz circles, he’s revered, but he should be as well-known as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, or John Coltrane. His name should be as familiar as theirs to people who know almost nothing about jazz, but it’s not, for a variety of reasons. He had a volcanic temper that was at one time or another turned on almost everyone in his personal and professional life — bandmates, record labels, managers, wives (he had four), even audiences. He famously destroyed a bass onstage at the Five Spot in response to heckling from the crowd, and punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth during a rehearsal, knocking out one of his teeth and ruining his embouchure.
He went through periods of emotional upheaval where he’d hardly work at all; after Eric Dolphy’s death in 1964, Mingus virtually disappeared for five years. His recordings were scattered among too many labels, and he re-worked and re-recorded his tunes too many times, for listeners to stay caught up. Davis was signed to Prestige, then to Columbia, and finally to Warner Bros.; Coltrane was signed to Prestige, then to Atlantic, then to Impulse!, allowing fans to track their artistic evolution with relative ease. Mingus would release an album on Columbia and one on Atlantic within months of each other, then start his own label and issue still more material, or sell live recordings to anyone who wanted to put them out.
That said, there are some key eras of his work that can be explored. His recordings from the late 1950s — Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty on Columbia and Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, and Blues & Roots, all on Atlantic — are landmarks not just in his catalog, but in jazz as a whole. His early ’60s Impulse! albums The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus are two of his greatest works, the former an artfully orchestrated studio masterpiece and the latter a raucous, wall-pounding collection of rave-ups recorded with an 11-piece band. After recording the latter, Mingus went on a European tour with an incredible band featuring Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond; many live recordings exist, but again, following Dolphy’s death, there was almost no new music until 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music. Produced with Teo Macero and released on Columbia, it featured a large orchestra playing some brilliant new compositions including “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers,” “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too,” and “The Chill Of Death,” which included a recitation of the title poem. It’s an amazing record that should be much better known.
In 1973, Mingus re-signed with Atlantic and was reborn, artistically and professionally. In the space of five years, he recorded seven albums’ worth of material, almost all of it new and much of it equal to his best previous work. And it’s all just been compiled into a deluxe box, Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings, which comes as seven CDs or eight LPs, all remastered and sounding fantastic.
Mingus Moves was his first album after re-signing with Atlantic. Recorded October 29-31, 1973 and released in early 1974, it featured a new band: Ronald Hampton on trumpet, George Adams on tenor sax, Don Pullen on piano, and Dannie Richmond — who had played with Mingus more or less continually since 1956 — on drums. The new players were extraordinarily vital, particularly Adams and Pullen. The saxophonist had a rough, gritty sound and could shift almost instantly from speedy bebop lines to raucous cries that fell somewhere between Albert Ayler and later free players like Charles Gayle and David S. Ware. The opening track, “Canon,” is one of the most beautiful pieces any Mingus group ever recorded, a deeply spiritual melody that the two horns lay over each other almost like they’re singing a round, as Richmond plays tiny bells and occasionally thumps the drums. When Mingus and Pullen enter together, they give it an even more elegiac feel. Then, right at the halfway mark, it shifts gears into a gospel groove that’ll make you want to get up and wave your arms in the air. It’s an incredible piece of music that almost seems to stop time while it’s playing.
This box limits its scope to studio recordings, so you don’t get Mingus At Carnegie Hall, which is a shame. It was recorded in concert on January 19, 1974 with Jon Faddis on trumpet, Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax, and Adams, Pullen and Richmond, plus three special guests: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, tenor saxophonists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Handy, all guesting on two long jams — versions of the Duke Ellington tunes “Perdido” and “C Jam Blues” — at the end of the show. Those two pieces, roughly 25 minutes each, were all that was included on the original LP, and if an endless parade of solos is your idea of fun, it has plenty of peaks and very few valleys. But Rhino reissued the album in 2021, giving listeners the entire concert and expanding it to a two-CD set in the process, and that gives a much more interesting portrait of Mingus’s early ’70s music. The compositions — “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Fables Of Faubus,” “Celia” and “Big Alice” — are a mix of old and new, but all presented with equal fervor; nothing he and his band played was ever rote or lazy. This expanded live album is now an essential piece of his catalog.
Changes One and Two were recorded over three days of sessions at the very end of 1974 — December 27, 28 and 30 — with Jack Walrath on trumpet, George Adams on tenor sax, Don Pullen on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums. Each album includes a version of a piece called “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”; on Changes One, it’s a 12-minute instrumental, while on Changes Two, it’s a four-minute showcase for singer Jackie Paris and guest trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Fans of mid ’60s Mingus albums like The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady or Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus may find the Changes LPs a little too smooth and romantic for their liking; this quintet is very much in an almost retro hard bop mode. Despite their politically engaged titles, which make reference to the then-governor of New York State and a deadly prison uprising, “Remember Rockefeller At Attica” and “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi U.S.A.” are bouncing, swinging themes that could have come off a Clifford Brown/Max Roach album from 1956. The 17-minute “Sue’s Changes,” from Changes One, is equally glossy. There are moments when the horns go off into ecstatic flights clearly inspired by free jazz, though, and Don Pullen is a highly percussive pianist as comfortable with avant-garde ribbons of notes as with bebop and blues. “Devil Blues” features Adams howling lyrics by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown; the words are creative, but the saxophonist should have kept the horn in his mouth, as he sounds like a lunatic shouting to himself on the subway. Still, the mix of raw and smooth, of old tunes (a reworking of “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” which dated back to at least 1964) and new, makes them some of Mingus’s most fascinating work.
Cumbia & Jazz Fusion and Three Or Four Shades Of Blues were the last two albums Mingus played on. Most of the material for both was recorded in March 1977 in New York, though one track, “Music For ‘Todo Modo,” was recorded a year earlier in Italy, intended for the soundtrack to a movie, though legendary composer Ennio Morricone composed the score that was actually used in the final film. It was placed on the B-side of Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, paired with the album’s title track, a 28-minute piece that attempts to combine South American cumbia with big band jazz via a 14-member ensemble that included about a half dozen percussionists, as well as jungle sound effects courtesy of producer Ilhan Mimaroglu. Three Or Four Shades Of Blues filled its first side with reworkings of old Mingus compositions: “Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Noddin Ya Head Blues.” The second side presented two new pieces, the title track and “Nobody Knows,” and added numerous guests, including guitarists Larry Coryell and John Scofield and alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune. George Mraz and Ron Carter also played bass on the record, because ALS, the disease that would take Mingus’s life on January 5, 1979, had already begun to progress.
Although he could no longer play the bass, Mingus composed material for two more of his own albums as well as a collaboration with Joni Mitchell, which she named in tribute to him. The sessions for Me, Myself An Eye and Something Like A Bird, held in January 1978, were arranged by trumpeter Jack Walrath and the large ensembles were conducted by saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, both longtime Mingus collaborators; the ideas were his, though he was forced to use a wheelchair by that point and could not physically lead the musicians himself. The albums featured some of his longest and most ambitious studio pieces — “Three Worlds Of Drums,” which opens Me, Myself An Eye, features Dannie Richmond, Steve Gadd, and Joe Chambers, each one taking the music in a slightly different direction. Similarly, Something Like A Bird opens with its title track, spread across both sides of the vinyl and running nearly 32 minutes. The album ends with “Farewell Farwell,” a tribute to a friend Mingus wrote about extensively in his wild autobiography, Beneath The Underdog.
Charles Mingus didn’t make it easy on listeners. His music was frequently brilliant, but not always presented in the ideal context, and it could be difficult, given the flood of material, to know where to start. The Changes box gathers work that deserves a wider audience — hell, I’ve been listening to his music for decades and I’d never heard these final two albums before — and gives it the presentation it deserves, including brilliant sound. If you’re new to Mingus, there’s no reason not to start here. Then move backward to the earlier Atlantic albums, as well as his Columbia and Impulse! releases, of course. But if you’re just hearing “Canon” for the first time, I envy you.
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten & Paal Nilssen-Love -"Part 1"
Bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love have been playing together for three decades, since they entered the Trondheim Conservatory of Music at more or less the same time in Norway. They have played together in the Thing with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, in Atomic, in the Scorch Trio with guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, and in many more contexts besides. The Guts & Skins octet, named for their respective instruments, is a new group featuring some of their favorite musicians, including Magnus Broo on trumpet; Isabelle Dutoit on vocals and clarinet; Signe Emmeluth on alto sax; Hanne DeBacker on baritone sax; Alexander Hawkins on piano and Hammond B3; and Johan Holmegaard on percussion. They played four gigs at the Nasjonal Jazzscene club in Oslo (I’ve been there; it’s nice) in May 2022, recordings from which make up this CD. “Part 1” gives an accurate introduction to their style — it’s blaring and explosive, but settles down into some remarkably subtle interactions at times, too. (From Guts & Skins, out now via PNL.)
Javier Nero - "Time"
Trombonist Javier Nero has put together a large and impressive ensemble for his second album. The core group is anchored by pianist Josh Richman, bassist William Ledbetter, and drummer Kyle Swan, but it also features multiple guests, trumpeters Sean Jones and Randy Brecker, saxophonist Tim Green, and vibraphonist Warren Wolf. His orchestrations are dense and loaded with rich harmonies. “Time” is a showcase for Jones and Swan in particular, but everybody contributes something interesting, especially guitarist Michael Kramer and baritone saxophonist Dustin Mollick, who prove that just a few well-placed notes can be the foundation for a vast musical edifice. There’s a lot of classic big-band jazz structure at work here, but there’s also plenty of African rhythm, as befits its inspiration (note that title). (From Kemet – The Black Land, out now via Outside In.)
Michael Blake - "Little Demons"
Saxophonist Michael Blake’s latest album reflects some dark life experiences, including the death of his mother in 2018 and living through the pandemic in New York. But there’s a lot of joy in the music as well, and it’s played by a unique ensemble that includes electric guitar from Guilherme Monteiro, percussion and marimba (no traditional drum kit) from Mauro Refosco and Rogerio Boccato, and a three-piece string section: cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist Michael Bates, and Skye Steel on violin, the large Brazilian lap viola the rabeca, and the gonji, a one-stringed instrument from Ghana. “Little Demons” feels like about four pieces in one; it’s got the clattering, thumping rhythm of northern Brazil underpinning the funky strings of a blaxploitation movie soundtrack, there’s a guitar solo that sets the air on fire, and Blake’s own playing is simultaneously subdued and focused, weaving through it all like a guy exploring a street market searching for just the right thing…and finding it. (From Dance Of The Mystic Bliss, out now via P&M.)
Benjamin Jephta - "The Ben-Dhlamini Stomp"
I’ve heard South African bassist Benjamin Jephta on albums like Thandi Ntuli’s The Offering and Exiled, and Sisonke Xonti’s uGaba The Migration, as well as his own Homecoming and The Evolution Of An Undefined. He’s a key player on that country’s scene, switching back and forth between upright and electric with equal adeptness, and combining multiple styles of acoustic jazz with funk, hip-hop, and African styles like gqom and kwaito. This album, which features an entirely new band full of players I’ve never heard of (Alonzo Demetrius on trumpet, Nery Zidon on alto sax, Stephen Byth on tenor sax, Noe Zagroun on piano, Tareq Rantisi on percussion, and Tyson Jackson on drums), is all acoustic but stylistically varied. “The Ben-Dhlamini Stomp” is a showcase for the horns; all three players take short but focused solos, each one seeming to pick up where the one before left off and cycling through the rotation several times and eventually building up to a three-way storm. Meanwhile, the rhythm section keeps it locked down, swaying and, yes, stomping. (From Born Coloured, Not Born-Free, out now via Akoustik Elektrik Music.)
Illegal Crowns - "Crooked Frame"
Illegal Crowns is a fascinating, international quartet featuring three Americans — cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — and French pianist Benoît Delbecq. They’ve released a CD and an LP on RogueArt, and their third release is out now on Out Of Your Head. “Crooked Frame,” which opens the album, is a Tomas Fujiwara composition, and sounds like it; it has the intense forward-march quality of a lot of his music, with Bynum playing a long melody and Delbecq providing occasional chordal accompaniment, while the Halvorson comes in and out, as much a disruption as a member of the ensemble. This is squiggly, slippery music that resists capture but is at the same time not consciously trying to throw you off track. It’s visceral abstraction that leaves a mark. (From Unclosing, out now via Out Of Your Head.)
Marquis Hill - "Stretch (The Body)"
Trumpeter Marquis Hill, originally from Chicago but now based in New York, is a fascinating artist whose work encompasses skilled, complex post-bop; groove music that sits somewhere between hip-hop and Quiet Storm R&B; and meditation soundtracks. This short record (eight tracks in under 25 minutes) features sampled voices that deliver almost instructional messages, as Hill and his group — keyboardist Micheal King, bassist Junius Paul, and drummer Indie Buz — lay down tight, groove-based but also psychedelically expansive music that sets one’s mind adrift. The “message” is about living consciously, in the moment, examining the things we do every day seemingly by rote and attempting to imbue them with greater intention. On “Stretch (The Body),” vibraphonist Joel Ross shows up, delivering a precise and bouncing solo that leaps out of the otherwise breathy track. (From Rituals & Routines, out now via Edition.)
Donny McCaslin - "Body Blow"
Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin works once again with his longtime quartet of synth player Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana on this new album. They all appeared on his albums Casting For Gravity, Fast Future, Beyond Now, and Blow. Oh, and they all were the band on David Bowie’s Blackstar, recruited after Bowie came to one of their shows at the late, lamented 55 Bar. The compositions here are big and hooky, with Lefebvre and Guiliana delivering powerful backbeat-driven grooves much more indebted to rock, blues, and particularly ’80s AOR than to jazz. McCaslin has a big, crying sound on the saxophone, which balances really well against Lindner’s array of synths and Wurlitzer organ. He also plays through pedals a lot, giving the music a spacy, disorienting effect. One new element on this record is the addition of subtle string arrangements on a few tracks. “Body Blow” is a big, whack-you-in-the-head riff-storm that reminds me of Sons Of Kemet and Moon Hooch (the sax-drums duo who play in New York’s subways), with extra bass drops. (From I Want More, out now via Edition.)
Linda May Han Oh -"Circles"
Bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh’s sixth album of her own music, her first since 2019, features a killer ensemble: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, vocalist Sara Serpa, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. The compositions have a dreamlike quality; Serpa’s vocals are frequently wordless, but she’s not scatting. Instead, she’s spilling out streams of syllables along melodic lines in a way that reminds me of the music of Laurie Anderson, though I can’t explain why. Turner, always an introspective saxophonist, seems entirely lost in thought here, and Almazan and Calvaire are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Oh is as propulsive here as she is with Vijay Iyer’s trio or any other context I’ve ever heard her in, but her music travels through a lot of stages, so the closer you listen, the more you’ll hear. (From The Glass Hours, out now via Biophilia.)
Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis - "Movement I"
Wynton Marsalis has written another symphony (his fourth) and recorded it with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, augmented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. That’s a lot of personnel, and the music surges with power as a result. It’s complicated stuff, but it all stays based in the blues and anchored to a swinging rhythm. The opening movement, “The Big Scream (Black Elk Speaks)” has passages of high-impact blare that remind me of David Shire’s soundtrack to the original The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three — one of the greatest New York movies ever made, if you haven’t seen it — but it leaps from the barroom to the church to the sidewalk and all around again, and sets up the rest of the symphony, which has Ellingtonian grandeur and the energy of a ballet, very nicely. (From The Jungle, out now via Blue Engine.)
Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra - "The Ballad Of Deadwood Dick"
Horace Tapscott is one of the most under-celebrated figures in American jazz. In terms of leadership and compositional talent — just the ability to spot amazing musicians, put bands together, write glorious music for them to play, and keep the work happening for decades, whether anyone was listening or not — and community-mindedness, representing his city and his people, he was on a level with Sun Ra, or even more aptly, William Parker. Parker isn’t just a master of his instrument; he’s also bandleader who continually reinvents himself while staying true to his core artistic values, and he’s a key figure in the annual Vision Festival, a week-long (or longer) celebration of forward-looking jazz that honors elders of the music while continuously spotlighting up-and-coming talent. Tapscott did that for more than half a century, in Los Angeles, a city that has always had incredible jazz musicians, but has rarely respected them. He formed the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in 1961, bringing it under the umbrella of the Underground Musicians Association two years later. That organization later changed its name to the UGMAA (Union of God’s Musician and Artists Ascension). Note that all this took place before the AACM was formed in Chicago. Before the Jazz Composers Guild formed in New York. Before anybody else, Horace Tapscott was demonstrating artistic self-determination and community spirit.
He almost never recorded for an outside label; 1969’s The Giant Is Awakened, credited to the Horace Tapscott Quintet, came out on Flying Dutchman, and the two-volume live set The Dark Tree was released on HatHut in 1991. In between those, most Arkestra and UGMAA music came out on the independent Nimbus West label, with a few other titles on Interplay. Tapscott died in 1999, but the Arkestra continues on, led by veteran members and in some cases their children (the current leader is drummer Mekala Session, son of Michael Session, a saxophonist who joined the group in 1974). Now they’re putting out Arkestra music on the label The Village, an imprint dedicated to L.A.-based spiritual jazz. 60 Years is a double LP that features one track from each decade of the Arkestra’s existence, beginning with a recording from 1961 and ending with a live track from 2019. “The Ballad of Deadwood Dick” is from one of their rare appearances outside California — a 1995 performance at the Moers Festival in Germany that included a special guest: alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who had been a member of the Arkestra in the late ’60s and early ’70s, before moving to New York and becoming a star on the loft jazz scene. (The list of former Arkestra members is long and eye-popping; it includes David Murray, Butch Morris, Wilber Morris, Dwight Trible and many, many others.) The group at Moers included a double rhythm section (two pianists, two bassists, two drummers), trumpet, trombone, four saxophonists, French horn and tuba, and the piece is a throbbing, roaring big band workout with a clip-clop percussion line intended to suggest horses’ hooves. The crowd is appropriately exultant, and this entire set, almost 85 minutes of music in all, is a brilliant entry point into the vast Tapscott/UGMAA/PAPA world of sound and expression. Dive in. (From 60 Years, out now via The Village.)