Return to Dr.Progresso Reviews


Passions of a Man

Charles Mingus was a giant among jazz artists. He was physically imposing, all but dwarfing his upright bass, and he was the Charlie Parker of bass - a virtuoso. He was also an impressive piano player, although he rarely performed on that instrument. But he will be best remembered for his incredible body of compositions, the earliest dating back to the late thirties. His music draws for inspiration upon Duke Ellington, bop, gospel, and Bartok. He wrote bittersweet melodies and searing blues. He wrote angry music ("Fables For Faubus"), tributes to past masters ("My Jelly Roll Soul"), and soul-stompers ("Better Git Hit In Your Soul"). And one of his most fertile periods (the second half of the fifties) has now been captured on the boxed set, PASSIONS OF A MAN [Rhino/Atlantic R2 72871; 6 discs + 120 pp book; retailing for around $70-75, on sale as low as $59]


This collection covers all Mingus's Atlantic recordings from his first (PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS) through his 1961 collaboration with Roland Kirk (OH YEAH), collected chronologically on five discs. PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS occupies half of the first disc, the remainder taken up by four tracks Mingus cut as a sideman for Teddy Charles (for the second half of Charles' second Atlantic album, WORD FROM BIRD) - the only tracks on this set in which Mingus is not the leader. The second disc contains all of THE CLOWN, plus additional tracks recorded at the same sessions but not used until the sixties on TONIGHT AT NOON (a catch-up album). The third disc has BLUES AND ROOTS, plus alternate takes from that album. The fourth disc is the only live album, his 1960 Antibes concert album. The fifth disc contains all the material recorded for OH YEAH plus additional tracks not released until TONIGHT AT NOON. Throughout this disc Mingus plays only piano, while the late Doug Watkins played bass; Roland Kirk was the featured player, a virtual sax section all by himself. The sixth disc is a 72-minute interview conducted by Atlantic President Nesuhi Ertegun, half of which appeared as an appendium to the CD issue of OH YEAH.


This is incredible stuff. "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (the title track of the album of that name) seared its way into my permanent memory banks as soon as I bought the album in 1956; I used to hum or whistle its refrain (a brooding, rising chorus) all day long, desperate to get home and play the LP again. The band, with Jackie McLean on alto sax and J.R. Monterose on tenor, rose magnificently to the occasion. (But later Monterose complained publicly - in the liner notes of an album of his own in the seventies - about Mingus, whom he apparently disliked strongly, and whose music he failed to appreciate. But his playing for Mingus was nonetheless quite sympathetic to the music.) This was the first album (after half a dozen or more earlier albums) for which Mingus did not write out his compositions, but taught them by ear to each musician (which might have been Monterose's problem; I don't know). He wanted each musician to bring his own voice to the pieces, and this is exactly what occurred. Particularly in the title track the solos mesh organically with the piece, advancing it - rather than being show-off vehicles during which the "theme" stated at the beginning is abandoned until it is recapitulated at the end (a more common practice in jazz).

Jean Shepherd does "narration" on the title track of THE CLOWN. Shepherd was big in 1957, but his spoken parts become wearing on the listener after a few plays; I usually skip over this track when I listen to the album now. And that's a disservice to the music. The most impressive (to me) piece on the original album was "Haitian Fight Song," a piece first heard earlier on the Debut album, THE CHARLES MINGUS QUINTET + MAX ROACH, where it was performed live at the Club Bohemia by a different band. This piece bristles with anger and energy.

BLUES AND ROOTS was not released by Atlantic until several years after it was recorded. Its feeling is loose, almost sloppy, but it uses a bigger band, anchored by the baritone sax of Pepper Adams, to build "pyramids" of music, each instrument adding its own cannonic line over the massed lines of the others. John Handy (alto sax, tenor sax) once told me that it was a near-disaster of a date. All of the material was new, unrehearsed, and Mingus kept changing pieces, adding or subtracting lines. A number of the musicians got drunk in disgust. Nonetheless, the music is good - a precursor to the two Columbia albums, MINGUS AH UM and MINGUS DYNASTY, which were recorded soon thereafter, but released first. "Better Git Hit In Your Soul" is prefigured here with "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting." The alternate takes of four of the album's six pieces which finish out the disc give an idea of the evolution these pieces underwent in the studio.

The Antibes concert is anomalous. Featuring the band (centered around Eric Dolphy) who recorded in 1961 for Candid, with Bud Powell sitting in on piano for one piece, it is typical of Mingus club dates in that period, with longer solos than usually made it to record for studio albums (Mingus edited his recordings, shortening solos that ran too long, sometimes splicing together different takes). But this is his only Atlantic recording with Dolphy, a giant among saxophonists whose untimely death in 1964 (in Germany) cut short an exploding career.

Roland Kirk was another unique saxophonist. Blind, he built homemade saxes out of parts, creating for himself two instruments he called the Stritch and the Manzello. He could play these along with a tenor sax simultaneously, all three instruments' mouthpieces in his mouth, his hands stretching across them to finger them each. He also used a small nose flute and a siren to punctuate his solos. When he joined Mingus in 1961, he took the band (which I saw at Birdland) in new directions. OH YEAH is the only recorded document of this - and it's stunning. The "Hog Callin' Blues" is a tour-de-force for Kirk, but he is strong throughout the album. And Mingus on piano (one of only two albums he recorded on piano - the other was a solo piano album for Impulse) is forceful. He also sings, although his singing does not go far beyond the wordless notes and exhortations he shouted and sang on other occasions to urge his musicians along. "Go, Roland! Yeah!"

The boxed set is fully annotated with a separate book. It is detailed and for the most part accurate, but twice it refers to a Mingus album for Bethlehem, DUKE'S CHOICE. There is no such album. The Bethlehem album of that name was by Duke Ellington, not Mingus. (The album referred to was actually MODERN JAZZ SYMPOSIUM.)

This set, along with the boxed set from Fantasy of Mingus's complete Debut recordings (Mingus co-owned Debut with Max Roach), supplies rich documentation of Mingus's recordings in the fifties, one of his most fertile periods. But there is more: the two Columbia albums, two albums for Bethlehem, and other odds and ends, like half an MGM album backing Langston Hughes' poetry, a trio album with Hampton Hawes (originally on Jubilee), and yet more - most of it now available once again on CD. All of Mingus's albums reward repeated listenings.                                                                 

Back to Dr. Progresso

If you are interested in obtaining any of the music discussed in this site, click on Ordering Information

I welcome feedback on these pages. I can be reached directly at twhite8 AT cox DOT net. Let me hear from you. --Dr. P