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THE COMPLETE 1959 COLUMBIA RECORDINGS (Columbia Legacy C3K 65145)
This is the third Charles Mingus boxed set to be released. The first was the massive, 12-CD set, CHARLES MINGUS: THE COMPLETE DEBUT RECORDINGS released by Fantasy in 1990. Mingus co-owned the Debut label with Max Roach in the fifties, and recorded a great deal of music for release on that label, all but a tiny fraction of which is collected in that set (his contribution to Teo Macero's 10" LP EXPLORATIONS is missing because Macero owned the rights and reissued the album on his own Stash collection). The second boxed set was the Rhino/Atlantic PASSIONS OF A MAN (reviewed elsewhere in these pages).
The present boxed set was first issued, in LP form only, by Mosaic a few years ago. Columbia reserved the right to release it on CDs and now has finally done so. These recordings were effectively the climax of Mingus's career as a recording artist in the fifties. They represent his peak for that decade, one of his most productive periods.
One can fairly neatly divide Mingus's career by decades: Although his earliest compositions date from 1938 and 1939 -- although finally recorded more than twenty years later -- his career as a professional musician essentially started around 1940, and his death occurred in 1979. The first decade, the forties, saw him establishing himself as a musician, playing bass with a variety of musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Lionel Hampton, and winding up the decade in the trend-setting Red Norvo Trio with Red Norvo on vibes and Tal Farlow on guitar (no drums). His compositions were rarely heard in this decade, although Lionel Hampton did record "Mingus Fingus" -- alternatively known as "Mingus Fingers" -- in 1947, and Mingus made a few 78's in the late forties which are now rare collectors' items.
His second decade was the fifties, and it was then that he visibly flowered. His music was unique to jazz, and it took a while for it to gain recognition and critical acclaim, but a succession of albums, on Period, Savoy, Debut, Atlantic, and Bethlehem, established his authenticity and power as both a musician (a bass virtuoso, capable of playing pizzicato and arco simultaneously) and a composer/leader who, like Ellington, fashioned his music around the musicians who played it, bringing out their (sometimes hidden) strengths. There were many jazz labels in the fifties, as well as many more record labels that released jazz (in addition to other music). It was a fertile time for jazz. But one label stood at the top: Columbia. Guided by George Avakian in the fifties, Columbia had a long history of recording jazz and was still home for traditional jazz acts and bandleaders like Duke Ellington (who came back to the label in the mid-fifties), but Columbia also encouraged new music (some has been collected on the double-CD, THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM, including a symphonic Mingus work, "Revelations (First Movement)" -- (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), and musicians like Miles Davis, and, later, Thelonious Monk. Columbia was one of the biggest record companies in the world. To get a recording contract with Columbia was most jazz musicians' unfulfilled dream. Mingus recorded two LPs for Columbia in 1959. They were considered at that time to be his best yet. And they remain among his very best.
The third decade, the sixties, saw both major achievements and long periods of seclusion from music (documented in a PBS film now available on video and laser disk, during the course of which Mingus suffers eviction from a loft). This was the period that produced PRE-BIRD (now MINGUS REVISITED) for Mercury, the mishandled 1962 TOWN HALL CONCERT for United Artists (beautifully restored as THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT on Blue Note) which was the forerunner of the posthumous EPITAPH, all his Impulse records, and a series of self-released albums that included a Monterey Jazz Festival recording and an album of music intended for the next year's Festival but recorded at UCLA. It was also the decade in which he triumphantly toured Europe, spawning dozens of bootleg recordings in his wake.
The seventies was his final decade and it is marked by one very ambitious album, LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC (Columbia) and a variety of lesser albums, including Joni Mitchell's MINGUS. He entered the decade as a comeback (I did an article on him for CRAWDADDY, a rock magazine, in 1970) and became something of a senior eminence before disease crippled and then killed him. By the time Joni Mitchell discovered him the image of Mingus as an Angry Young Man had long since faded away. But Mingus' music still lingers on, as the repertoire of first The Mingus Dynasty and later the Mingus Big Band, both presided over by his widow, Susan Graham Mingus. Both groups have released CDs and both have preserved the spirit of Mingus fairly well, although at times I miss his exhortations to "Go on, now -- go all the way!"
The two albums Mingus made for Columbia in 1959 were MINGUS AH UM and MINGUS DYNASTY. They had an enormous impact when they came out. "Better Git It In Your Soul" which opened AH UM (the title's a bad pun on Latin declension) tapped into something then brand new, which came to be known later as "soul jazz" -- jazz that drew upon the shouts and vigor of black gospel music (Mingus had grown up on black church music) -- and established a new popularity for Mingus with the jazz public. But that was far from all. The album's second track was Mingus's tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," a piece which has since been covered by a variety of rock musicians -- one of the first jazz compositions to make such a "crossover." And from there on the album continued to build, through "Open Letter to Duke," a Duke Ellington inspired work, and "Bird Calls," similarly inspired by Charlie Parker (with whom Mingus also had played), to "Fables of Faubus," which mocked the governor of Arkansas for defying integration but did so with a gorgeous melody. And the album closed with "Jelly Roll," an "old-timey" piece in which Mingus played slap-bass and Jimmy Knepper played classic tailgate trombone -- an affectionate satire which Mingus has also recorded as "My Jelly Roll Soul," in remembrance of Jelly Roll Morton. In the album's nine tracks Mingus covered a lot of ground with an augmented seven-piece band and an orchestral approach.
MINGUS DYNASTY, the second album, also used a seven-piece band, but some tracks used a larger, ten-piece band, and two tracks used cellos. With this kind of instrumentation Mingus could create an even broader pallet of musical coloration, and he reached the album's pinnacle with "Far Wells, Mill Valley," an ambitious work with a haunting melody. But the album was a trifle less even than AH UM. It opened with "Slop," a looser followup to "Better Git It In Your Soul," perhaps taking place at a barbecue after church, but obviously capitalizing on the former piece's success, and included two Ellington pieces, "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," and "Mood Indigo."
For twenty years these two albums stood on their own as finished and accomplished works, highly regarded, landmarks. Then in 1979 Columbia issued a double-LP called Nostalgia in Times Square/the Immortal 1959 Sessions. It turned out there were four unreleased pieces from those 1959 sessions. These made up side one of the first LP. The remaining three sides were taken up with expanded versions of eleven of the tracks which originally appeared on the two albums. These "expansions" consisted of restored parts edited out by Mingus in 1959, mostly portions of solos. But also "restored" are brief exchanges between Mingus and producer Teo Macero at the conclusions of some pieces -- totally non-musical and essentially extraneous to the albums.
In due time MINGUS AH UM was issued on CD. It was unchanged from the original album. But MINGUS DYNASTY did not follow it immediately. Instead Columbia put out something called SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN'S WIFE, a bastard album. It used the expanded versions of four pieces from DYNASTY, as first heard on the NOSTALGIA double-LP, followed by the title track which is from LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC (then not out on CD) and concluding with two unaltered tracks from DYNASTY. Years later DYNASTY was finally released in its original form on CD.
Now Columbia has reissued the "complete" recordings in a boxed three-CD set. They appear to be the AH UM and DYNASTY albums, plus a third CD, ALTERNATE TAKES. But appearances can be deceptive. It's not time to throw out your old copies of AH UM or DYNASTY. This set is NOSTALGIA IN TIMES SQUARE integrated with the original albums. Each "album" here is "restored," using the expanded, unedited versions (when they exist) of each track. This has added 11 minutes 11 seconds to the playing time of AH UM, and 8 minutes 42 seconds to DYNASTY. But That's Not All! There's More! The four originally unreleased tracks are "restored" to their albums, three at the end of AH UM and one at the end of DYNASTY. ALTERNATE TAKES presents six additional alternate takes to pieces originally released on the two albums.
So what does this all mean? It means a bonanza for Mingus collectors, of course. And it means Columbia has managed to turn two albums into five CDs. (It also means that the claim, "first time on CD in unedited form," is not true of the four tracks used on SHOES, despite claims to the contrary.) But bigger questions linger...and have done so since 1979, when Columbia first released some of these "unedited" tracks (the "unedited" version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is the only track not on the 1979 double-LP). The biggest question is why Mingus edited these recordings originally.
The official line here is that the albums were edited for reasons of space. And the amount of time restored seems to bear that out, since the original LPs were both just under 46 minutes long, which is approaching an LP's limit. (You can get up to 25 minutes on the side of a carefully-cut LP, but you make sonic sacrifices to do it, including reduced dynamics, a lower recorded volume which causes a poorer signal-to-noise ratio, and more potential inner-groove distortion. None of these sacrifices would have served Mingus's music well. And even at 50 minutes an LP, some editing would still have been required to deal with the extra seven minutes on the first album, and the extra five minutes on the second.) But why shorten pieces? Why not just use one or two less, if time was the limitation?
Why indeed. I am not convinced this was ever Mingus's intention. The existence of four unused tracks suggests he was quite willing to leave off a track. (But it's also true those four are not as good as those which were used.) Mingus was not afraid to make use of then-emerging recording technology. His TOWN HALL CONCERT was intended as a public recording session and he recorded separate parts intended to be edited together later. His Impulse recordings (especially THE BLACK SAINT AND THE SINNER LADY) are heavily edited and overdubbed, using techniques pioneered by Les Paul but not commonly used in rock until the seventies, and rare in jazz in any period. When we check the "edits" on these Columbia recordings we cannot help but notice that they represent musical improvements. Solos are shortened and tightened and made more cohesive and that is surely no coincidence.
Mingus liked to integrate the solos in his music, using them to advance the overall piece rather than as showoff digressions on the theme. This was obvious as early as "Pithecanthropus Erectus" on the Atlantic album of that name. Like Ellington, he shaped his music to his musicians, but he also strove to shape his musicians to his music, challenging and driving them, many to the best efforts they ever put on record. And these two Columbia albums were a significant achievement for Mingus -- showpieces into which he put his best and most ambitious work of the time. I think he knew exactly what he wanted on those albums and he shaped and edited them to that end.
And I think it is highly significant that no effort was made to release the raw, unedited versions of this material until shortly after Mingus died. I suspect he would have objected -- and maybe did. Because the simple fact is that these bloated versions of his classic pieces are not as good. They are flabby where the original versions were taut. It's subtle, and if you hear this music in the expanded form first you may not notice it. But if you've had time, as I have, to come to know this music intimately as it was originally released, the differences are striking and disturbing.
Nonetheless, this set is valuable for every Mingus-phile. And particularly for the previously unreleased tracks (now on CD for the first time). All are minor Mingus, and none are as good as the originally released pieces, but even minor Mingus is worth hearing and having. The best is "Pedal Point Blues," which builds somewhat pyramidally, in common with the pieces on the Atlantic album, BLUES AND ROOTS (the forerunner of the Columbia albums, recorded earlier in 1959, but released later in 1960). "GG Train" first appeared (as "Double G Train") on an album of Langston Hughes' poetry, WEARY BLUES, recorded in 1958. "Girl of My Dreams" is Mingus using the chord structure of a standard on which to build more boppish lines, something he and other jazzmen did occasionally. Those three pieces are appended to MINGUS AH UM. MINGUS DYNASTY has the fourth piece, "Strollin'," a walking blues with a vocal by Honey Gordon (who made her first recordings with Mingus for Debut, and later in the sixties made her own album on Prestige).
This was recapitulated (with a better arrangement) on CHARLES MINGUS AND FRIENDS IN CONCERT in 1972 (look for the 2-CD set on domestic Columbia, not the oversize 1-CD Japanese import). And I feel better about the release of the six alternate takes than I do the unedited versions. These have the virtue of being entirely different, for better or worse (usually worse; there was a reason why they weren't used, edited or unedited), and show us the developing evolution of these pieces, since these are also earlier takes, more like recorded rehearsals in effect. And I must note that not every track on the original two albums is offered here in longer versions. Five tracks on AH UM and five tracks on DYNASTY remain the same, unchanged since their original release, apparently either originally unedited, or at least unavailable in unedited versions.
It remains only to point out that this set is very well annotated by Mingus's best musical biographer, Brian Priestley, in addition to republishing the original liner notes. Unlike some boxed sets this box simply holds three separate single-CD jewel boxes, and will fit on a shelf with other CDs. It does not have a separate booklet, but has individual booklets in each jewel box. The "covers" of these CDs duplicate the original album covers, and the first inside page of the booklets reproduces (in microscopic type) the back covers of the LPs. (Those back cover liner notes are also republished in a more readable form inside the booklets.)
And, finally, the recording quality, typical of Columbia at the time, is excellent and in realistic stereo.
UPDATE: Sony has now released these three CDs for sale individually. In due time the expanded versions of MINGUS AH UM and MINGUS DYNASTY may replace the original versions in the Columbia catalog. They are presently identified with stickers advertising the "unedited" and extra tracks. Otherwise they look much like the earlier CDs. I recommend getting copies of those original, "edited," CDs while you can. Revisionist history -- when applied to Mingus masterpieces -- must be held at bay. On the other hand, you can now buy the new CDs individually, rather than springing for the boxed set, and ALTERNATE TAKES is finally available by itself.