Charles Mingus
Live In '64
(Jazz Icons)

If it's "modern jazz" we're talking about, then Charles Mingus is without a doubt one of its most well-known, celebrated and historically important figures. A highly personal, and highly skilled, double bass player, Mingus was no less personal and influential as a composer: maybe we could talk about a "modern Ellington", but here we also have very clear and strong ties to Gospel music; also, "revolutionary" methods, such as his preferring the oral dimension to written notes on paper; his having highly disparate elements (here meaning both style and human) in his groups at the same time; his versatility in using quite different line-ups, from quartet to jazz orchestra; his ability in leading a group with a tight grip while making the most of the qualities of its members; his close ties to tradition while at the same time making use of some traits of the then-new "Free Jazz". And while it's true that echoes of Mingus are often apparent in the music by both Henry Threadgill and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, it's Mingus - not Nino Rota - that I think about every time I listen to those bitter-sweet moments which feature the muted trumpet and which were once so typical of Carla Bley's writing.

Everybody agrees about his discography. Hence, if one had to make a quick list of his "best works" from his "best period" (i.e., more or less the decade spanning 1955-'65), the obvious choices (in a chronological order) would be albums such as: Pithecanthropus Erectus, Tijuana Moods, Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus At Antibes, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Oh Yeah, The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, adding the mid-70s twin albums Changes One and Changes Two.

So it's only logical that the release, last year, of the double live album Cornell 1964 - though it was obviously greeted with much interest, curiosity, and critical favour - could not spark any "rediscovery". "Only" four and a half stars, whereas the unexpected appearing, a couple of years before, of the album Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall had added a rare piece of the puzzle to their fruitful musical relationship.

The Mingus line-up that toured Europe in 1964 had seen its work well-documented thanks also to a whole series of bootlegs (this being the name of all "illegal albums" before the Internet made this particular distinction quite meaningless). Recorded at Cornell University, the album won't reveal much that's new to those who already own, say, those two legal albums on Enja. There's a long version of Fables Of Faubus; the beautiful Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk; a nice version of Take The "A" Train; the famous So Long Eric; and a quite long (about half an hour)  performance of Meditations, without a doubt one of the peaks of his written works. Here we have the famous sextet that according to some is his best line-up ever (but what about the quintet on the At Antibes album, then?): faithful drummer Dannie Richmond; pianist Jaki Byard; Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone; Johnny Coles on trumpet; and Eric Dolphy on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet. Dolphy's name also appears quite large on the CD cover - which is understandable, Dolphy's language being quite more advanced when compared to that of the other wind players of this particular line-up; but we don't have to forget that it's the fact of presenting both the old and the new, the soft and the hard, that is part of the appeal of Mingus's music.

Those aforementioned beautiful qualities, coupled with a more than adequate recorded sound, made me think of Cornell 1964 as a perfect introduction to Mingus's work. Paradoxically - since it's an audio-visual work which presents a decidedly more limited repertoire - I found myself thinking in the same way about the DVD-V Live In '64 (it goes without saying that the CD is required listening for those who like Mingus. not to mention those "completists").

Offering good audio and video, more than two hours long, Live In '64 features recordings by three different European TV stations in three different occasions: April, 12 in Norway; April, 13 in Sweden; and April, 19 in Belgium. Strangely, they are not presented in a chronological order, in so differently from the useful and quite good liner notes by Rob Bowman. Why do I say it's strange? Because the nice, long concert (one hour) by the full line-up in a Norwegian theatre full of people is followed by a rehearsal in an empty Swedish theatre, and preceded by a rehearsal in a TV studio in Belgium where the group appears without trumpet player Johnny Coles, who collapsed on stage and underwent surgery due to a perforated ulcer.

A very nice concert in Norway, all musicians close to one another at the centre of the stage. They open with a very long version of So Long Eric, with Doplhy on alto sax who, when playing in "double time", made me think of Roscoe Mitchell; a nice performance by the whole sextet. We also have a very nice performance of Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk, with excellent solos by trumpet, double bass and piano. Then we have a very short Parkeriana, and a lively rendition of Take The "A" Train. Each listener/viewer will find his/her favourite moments, but what I think it's important here is the musical empathy existing among the musicians (and it's nice to see those amazed faces while a colleague is doing his solo), and also the way Mingus arranges the group's performance "in the moment".

Rehearsal in Sweden present an interesting whole, with a much briefer performance of So Long Eric, and a good Meditations On Integration: here the theme - performed by flute/piano/arco bass, plus the appearance of the bass clarinet - made me immediately think of Henry Threadgill/The Art Ensemble Of Chicago; it's a beautiful, deeply felt performance, with a nice, soft solo by Coles.

As a five-piece, the group plays in a TV studio in Belgium: at first they look like they're a bit sleepy, but So Long Eric (again, it's a brief performance), and Peggy's Blue Skylight are very good. What's quite astounding is this new version of Meditations On Integration: while the first part is quite similar to the previous performance, with the obvious difference of Coles being absent, the second part has very clear similarities to modern classical music, with Mingus stroking the double bass surface and throwing objects on the piano strings, it's a real stunner.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Jan. 12, 2008