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JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP (Savoy SV-0171) [1954/1955]

JAZZICAL MOODS (Period/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-1857-2) [1955]

These two CDs are Charles Mingus’s earliest important recordings.

Mingus had recorded in 1947 with Lionel Hampton (while playing bass in Hampton’s band). Hampton recorded his “Mingus Fingers” – as that piece was originally known – for Decca and it can be found on CD on the 1993 “Decca Jazz” album, MIDNIGHT SUN/LIONEL HAMPTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (1946-47), released by GRP (GRD-625). Subsequently Mingus made a number of 78-rpm singles for obscure Los Angeles labels (collected in part only on a bootleg Italian LP), and then recorded as part of the Red Norvo Trio in 1949, 1950 and 1951. (CDs of Mingus with Norvo are MOVE!, Savoy SV-0168; MIDNIGHT ON CLOUD 69 – split between the Norvo Trio and the George Shearing Quintet – Savoy SV-0208; and RED NORVO VOLUME TWO, Vintage Jazz Classics VJC-1008-2.) He recorded his first 10-inch Debut album, STRINGS & KEYS (a duet between bass and piano) in 1951 (originally for the Los Angeles-based Discovery label), but it was not released until 1953. He also played with pianists John Megegan and George Wallington (on Savoy and Prestige, respectively), with Charlie Parker (Clef/Norgran/Verve) and Jay Jay Johnson (Blue Note) as well. He gigged around during the first half of the ’50s.

But Mingus’s compositions – some dating back more than 10 years – had lain fallow, unperformed. So Mingus put together a Jazz Composers Workshop in 1954, the result of which was, originally, four 10-inch albums, two for Savoy and two for Period.

One of the Savoy albums (MG-15055) was not labeled as Mingus’s, but was credited to pianist Wally Cirillo, on which Cirillo and Mingus had only four tracks and the rest of the album was by pianist Bobby Scott. The other was called CHARLIE MINGUS (MG-15050) and is the second album released under Mingus’s name. A year later it was re-released as a 12-inch LP, combining the Mingus material from both 10-inch LPs, as JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP #2 (MG-12059). The CD is identical to the 12-inch LP; there are no extra tracks.


The material – five tracks – from CHARLIE MINGUS was performed by a sextet: John LaPorta on clarinet and alto sax, Teo Macero on tenor & baritone saxes, George Barrow on baritone & tenor saxes, Mal Waldron on piano, Mingus on bass and Rudy Nichols on drums. Their contributions were recorded on October 31, 1954. On the four tracks nominally led by Cirillo the group is pared down to a quartet: Teo Macero on tenor sax, Cirillo on piano, Mingus on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. They recorded on January 30, 1955 – three months later.

In between those dates, in December, 1954, Mingus recorded a similar sextet for the Period label, producing two 10-inch LPs titled JAZZICAL MOODS, Volumes 1 & 2 (SPL-1107 & SPL-1111). Once again John LaPorta played alto sax and clarinet, Teo Macero played tenor and baritone saxes, and Mingus played bass. But he also played piano, and was joined by Thad Jones on trumpet, Jackson Wiley on cello and Clem DeRosa on drums. Sevcn tracks were recorded for the two albums.

Not long after the albums were released in 1955, Period folded as a label. Subsequently the material from these two 10-inch albums was acquired by other labels, which issued it on single 12-inch LPs. Only one of those LPs carried all seven pieces; it was on the mail-order Jazztone label (JAZZ EXPERIMENT, J-1226). More commonly only six pieces were used, omitting Teo Macero’s sole compositional contribution, “Abstractions.” The best-known of these 12-inch LPs was THE JAZZ EXPERIMENTS OF CHARLIE MINGUS, issued by Bethlehem (BCP 65), which achieved a fairly wide distribution when it was issued in 1956. Subsequently various bargain labels issued 12-inch LPs containing as few as four or five of the original seven tracks.


Following those recording sessions Mingus’s next album as a leader was PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS for Atlantic. This album, reviewed elsewhere here, was the first for which Mingus did not write out his compositions, but taught them to his musicians by playing them their lines on a piano. This created a more organic music, one in which the musicians made their lines personally their own.

But the Savoy album was by a Jazz Composers Workshop. At this time Mingus was writing down his music. Nonetheless, the original liner notes for the 12-inch LP state that “Although the majority of the compositions heard herein are credited to Mingus and Cirillo, they are actually collaborations of the groups used on the compositions. This is so because the majority of the compositions herein are based on the improvisations of the men featured.” (Mingus and Cirillo are each credited with four tracks; the ninth is a Mingus arrangement of “Tea For Two.”)

Brian Priestly, in his Mingus, A Critical Biography, discusses the album and amplifies: “‘Getting Together,’ based on the chords of ‘All The Things You Are,’ is different [from Mingus’s version of ‘Tea For Two’] in that the three reeds [LaPorta, Macero and Barrow] do not play written lines but improvise together in a logical and occasionally semi-atonal manner, and, although the piece’s title is copyrighted by Mingus, he freely admitted in the sleeve-notes that ‘Teo, John, George, Rudy and Mal, of course, are just as responsible as I am for the final construction here.’


“In a similar fashion,” Priestly continues, “Mingus’s original ‘Purple Heart’ finds LaPorta and Macero improvising countermelodies behind each other’s solo choruses – and this at a time when collective improvisation was considered the exclusive preserve of Dixieland ensembles. Even more extraordinary for the period is ‘Gregarian Chant,’ whose title describes the first recorded attempt since Lennie Tristano’s in 1949 to create a totally unplanned group improvisation. (Mal Waldron has quoted Mingus as saying at the session, ‘When we play this tune, we’re not going to play any changes, we’re just going to play moods. Just follow me, and put your moods in, and we’ll build something beautiful.’) And in the event Mingus’s bowed introduction clearly leads the others into a D minor passage….” The piece is a triumph for all concerned. Mingus uses his bass to create the structure, shift the tempos (moods) and lead the musicians in the creation of a complete and satisfying work.

“Tea For Two” made use of a device Mingus liked: combining two different songs, both written for the same set of chords, so that one song is in a counterpoint to the other. Priestly: “‘Tea For Two’ alternates with ‘Perdido’ and has ‘Body and Soul’ as a countermelody.”

Mingus’s other composition was “Eulogy for Rudy Williams.” A tribute to the older saxophonist who had died less than a month previously in a swimming accident, it is in fact a nascent version of Mingus’s subsequent masterwork, “Pithecanthropus Erectus.” It uses the same brooding chords and wild saxophone cries and a very similar structure. And is almost as good.

Whether improvised or written out, the effect was that of multiple musical lines intertwining, each of the saxes playing independent but related melodies. This gave the music a far richer sound than one might normally expect from a six-piece band: more orchestral. Mingus at this point was writing long-lined, boppish melodies with strange and often bittersweet twists; his take on “standards” turned them into new and stronger pieces. (He would later transform “I Can’t Get Started” into an elegiac masterpiece.)

Wally Cirillo’s four tracks (“Smog L.A.,” “Level Seven,” “Transeason” and “Rose Geranium” – the titles say a lot) are sparer, being quartet performances. They feature Tristano-like melodies and piano playing from Cirillo, Macero at his most Konitz-like (but occasionally wilder, less “cool”), Mingus underpinning everything while simultaneously offering duets with the piano and the sax, all while Clarke’s drums are almost transparently present. These were Cirillo’s only recordings as a leader, and ultimately they were subsumed into Mingus’s album. But they were totally compatible with the other material on the 12-inch LP, particularly considering the overlap of Mingus and Macero. And when JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP was originally issued it was not credited solely to Mingus, but to Mingus, Cirillo, Macero and LaPorta. (Interestingly, Cirillo’s session grew out of a John Mehegan Trio session earlier the same day in the Hackensack, N. J., studio. This was a trio session for Savoy with pianist Mehegan joined by Mingus and Clarke. It produced four tracks, three of which can now be found on I JUST LOVE JAZZ PIANO, Savoy CD SV-0117. Then Mehegan left and Cirillo took over, Macero joining them.)


In the end and despite the way it was patched together, JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP is a strong and under-appreciated album. It was mostly overlooked in the ’50s and it still pretty much is. But it opens the window on mid-’50s experimental jazz with accessible and thrilling music.

JAZZICAL MOODS’ title was supposed to suggest the merger of “jazz” and “classical,” but the music is not a blend of classical and jazz: it’s pure jazz. This is not least due to the presence on most of the tracks of the young and fiery trumpet of Thad Jones (originally billed, for contractual reasons as “Oliver King,” a pretty bold use of the name of Louis Armstrong’s mentor, King Oliver). Mingus had heard Jones in Detroit and was raving about him: “I just heard the greatest trumpet player that I’ve heard in this life.” Jones justifies Mingus’s raves, especially on John LaPorta’s beautiful arrangement of “Stormy Weather.”

Adding to the varied sound this sextet could produce was Jackson Wiley’s cello, which he played both arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked), the later while Mingus was playing piano. Priestly says, “It should be said that Wiley’s bowed cello work is excellently carried off – directly foreshadowing the instrument’s use in the mid-1955 quintet of Mingus’s contemporary, Chico Hamilton.”

This album is also the first recording of Mingus’s piano playing. (Later, in the ’60s, Mingus would play piano rather than bass on OH YEAH, and two years later record a piano solo album, MINGUS PLAYS PIANO.) Mingus said he was “in reality a frustrated pianist,” and he revealed an “orchestral” style at the piano, drawing upon his idols, Art Tatum and Duke Ellington. In fact, Mingus was a better pianist than most jazz piano players. He plays piano on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Minor Instrusion,” Teo Macero’s “Abstractions” and “Four Hands.” On the latter he overdubbed his bass, hence the title.

Priestly on the material: “Of the five Mingus originals (‘Abstractions is by Macero, while LaPorta arranged ‘Stormy Weather’), three are based on standard material: ‘Spur of the Moment’ derives from ‘’S Wonderful,’ and ‘Four Hands’ from the ‘Extrasensory’ [‘Extrasensory Perception,’ a vehicle Mingus wrote for Lee Konitz] conception of ‘Idaho’ (but with a new middle-eight harmonically closer to that of the original song), while ‘Trilogy Pogo’ is really ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ played in counterpoint with not only [Dizzy Gillespie’s] ‘Hot House’ but [Gillespie’s] ‘Woody’n You’.”

“Trilogy Pogo” is a name which was not in fact used on the album in any of its many versions except for the first edition of the Jazztone LP (and Jazztone reissued the LP with the track’s correct title, a different cover and better notes as J-1271); the track is identified on all other editions of the album as “What Is This Thing Called Love.”

Of that piece Mingus said, in his original liner notes, that it “was arranged in a manner to show that it is easy to listen to several lines at one time. I used this method originally on an arrangement of ‘Tea for Two’ [for JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP] but this second arrangement is more complex for even though I employ three well-known melodies for the three different lines, it is at times with a little dissonance which I feel enhances the other harmonies….” That “little dissonance” was part of Mingus’s signature sound.

Priestly continues: “The quartet track ‘Thrice Upon A Theme’ is very close in feel and in detail to ‘Eulogy,’ with LaPorta hinting at the opening of ‘Pithecanthropus.’ And finally the ten-minute ‘Minor Instrusion’ … is not only based on the [Duke Ellington] ‘Chelsea Bridge’ figure but … develops into a large and complex structure.” (I’ve omitted parenthetical references to earlier and later works.)

Despite the strength and importance of the music on this album, Priestly is not sanguine about “one Clem DeRosa on drums. [DeRosa], possibly chosen for his ability to wield a tambourine, proves far less effective than Rudy Nichols especially on the three numbers where Mingus takes to the keyboard.” George T. Simon, in his Jazztone notes, states that DeRosa was “a last-minute substitute when the group’s regular drummer failed to show up on the date.” DeRosa, Simon says, “is a friend of John LaPorta’s, who drafted him for this record.” Mingus ran through a variety of drummers before settling on Danny Richmond in 1957.

These two 10-inch LPs were the flowering of the promise implicit in Mingus’s contributions to the JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP sessions a month or so earlier. The substitution of Wiley’s cello for Barrow’s baritone sax broadens the sextet’s sound. Jones’ trumpet rings like a bell and sounds a clear clarion call. And Waldron’s piano is barely missed with Mingus filling in. (But Mal Waldron was an important figure in ’50s jazz, a strong composer in his own right and an important contributor to other Mingus albums of that period, like PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS.) The material is if anything stronger, and Mingus shines as the composer of music at once complex and emotionally compelling.

I first encountered this music on the Bethlehem 12-inch reissue, THE JAZZ EXPERIMENTS OF CHARLIE MINGUS. What I did not then know was that Teo Macero’s “Abstractions” had been left off the album, and I didn’t find that out until I picked up a copy of the Jazztone version, JAZZ EXPERIMENT. (When “Abstractions” is included the album runs a second over 50 minutes – too long for most record companies in the LP era.) It’s a good piece, but typical of Macero. Mingus stated in his notes that “I remarked to Teo that I had asked him not to write an atonal composition. He said that it wasn’t atonal, that he had written it years before he ever studied the 12-tone system. On checking the score, however, he had to admit that it did have a [tone] row. Perhaps with this evidence we can conclude that Teo was naturally fated to subscribe to the 12-tone method of composition.”

Mingus added this sage advice: “In listening to music of this type, I think one gets more out of it by focussing the mind in front of the entire sound and letting what melodies come through that will. In this way it seems easier to hear and remember the composition as a whole, rather than listening to and following one single instrument.”

The album has been issued on CD in several versions, both with and without “Abstractions.” In 1986 a revived Bethlehem label put out THE JAZZ EXPERIMENTS OF CHARLIE MINGUS (BR-5024) – without “Abstractions.” In 1989 Fresh Sound, a Spanish label which acquires the Spanish CD rights for jazz albums and then markets them in the U.S., a gray-area of not-quite bootlegging, brought out JAZZICAL MOODS (FSR-CD 62). This uses the Period logo and cover artwork – even giving it Period’s catalog number, combining the original numbers into “SPL 1107-11” – but it omits “Abstractions” too.

That same year the British Affinity label, which had acquired the U.K. rights to all three of Mingus’s Bethlehem albums (the other two were EAST COASTING and A MODERN JAZZ SYMPOSIUM OF MUSIC AND POETRY WITH CHARLES MINGUS), issued ABSTRACTIONS (CD AFF 750) – a CD which not only includes all of the original JAZZICAL MOODS tracks, but three more, from MODERN JAZZ SYMPOSIUM. And the rest of them, with “Duke’s Choice” duplicated, can be found on Affinity’s companion CD, NEW YORK SKETCH BOOK (CD CHARLY 19) along with all of EAST COASTING – thus putting all of Mingus’s Bethlehem records, plus “Abstractions,” on two CDs.

In 1995, Fantasy Records issued its own CD of JAZZICAL MOODS, in its Original Jazz Classics Limited Edition Series. This version includes “Abstractions” and goes one step further: It lists for the first time “Echonitus” as a part of “The Spur of the Moment.” The reprinted original liner notes by Mingus (published whole for the first time since they appeared on the original 10-inch LPs) say “‘Echonitus’ is the piece without trumpet.” It appears to flow directly out of “Spur” without any discernable shift of mood or tempo, and until I had this version of the album I never suspected it was in any sense a separate piece. This CD is the version to get if you can find it. It uses the original master tapes and is well digitally remastered. (It also includes an excerpt from Nat Hentoff’s five-star – top rated Down Beat review of the first 10-inch LP on the jewel box back.)

There is only one CD of the Savoy album, and it’s a curious work. The digital remastering (done in Japan by Nippon Columbia Co, the current owner of the Savoy catalog; technically these Savoy CDs are imports, manufactured for the American market by Dennon in Japan) is good. The jewel-box booklet unfolds into a sheet almost 9½ inches square, on which is printed a replica of the original LP’s rather inadequate back cover liner notes. The information reprinted there is however significantly more accurate than that on the jewel box back – which consistently misspells “Cirillo” as “Cilliro” in the composer credits and in addition credits “Cilliro” with Mingus’s “Getting Together.”

I recommend both albums highly. They are an essential part of Charles Mingus’s recorded history, and musically rewarding in their own right. They came from a time when jazz was achieving its first maturity and was exploring and experimenting with new forms and modes, possibly the most fecund period in the history of modern jazz.

UPDATE: A recent trip to Tower revealed to me that not only are Mingus’s Bethlehem albums out on newer CD editions as “Bethlehem Archive” releases from Avenue Jazz – which, like 1992 versions include two bonus tracks on both EAST COASTING and MODERN JAZZ SYMPOSIUM – but the Savoy album, JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP, has been reissued on CD by Atlantic (92981-2), which apparently now controls the Savoy catalogue.

This is the version to get.

The mastering is still Dennon’s, but the packaging is in every respect superior, and there is an added track. This is “Body and Soul.” Priestley mentions the track in his book (“‘Body and Soul’ itself also involves ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ as an accompanying line”), and indicates that it was recorded at the same October 31, 1954 session. Take 2 was used on the original 10-inch Savoy album (MG-15050), but not used (for reasons of the LP’s length) on the 12-inch Savoy LP. Because I’ve never handled or heard the 10-inch LP, this slipped past me. For reasons known only to the producers of this CD, that take is not used on this new (2000) release of the album. Instead, “alt. Take 1” is used. The piece runs only 3:07 – rather short, but typical of the time – and features John LaPorta’s alto. I can only speculate over the differences between this take and the one originally used by Savoy. In any case, it’s good to see the piece restored to the album and available again for the first time since 1955.

One of the packaging improvements is the use of Peter Keepnews’ 1977 liner notes from the Savoy/Arista LP reissue of this album. (It did not include “Body and Soul” and there is no mention of the piece in these notes.) Keepnews quotes from Mingus’s original notes for the 10-inch LP, which is useful, and provides his own informed commentary as well.

The cover on this edition of the CD is only subtly different from that of the previous CD: “Charlie Mingus Presents” appears at the top, and only Cirillo, Macero and LaPorta’s names appear below, but the artwork (sheets of music with a pen, a coffee cup and a smoking cigarette laid upon them) remains the same.

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