MINGUS REVISITED (EmArcy 826 496-2)
THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 28353 2 5)
EPITAPH also exists on video and has been broadcast several times.
What ties these three albums together is two things: their historic roots and their ambition.
Charles Mingus was not just another jazz musician. In addition to playing bass, cello and piano, Mingus was a composer. Not a just song writer (although he did that too) but a composer of serious music, some of it jazz and all of it informed by a jazz sensibility, covering a broad spectrum of moods and forms. In this Mingus ranks with the best of the twentieth century composers, from Bartok to Ellington. (And it's taking nothing away from Ellington to say that Mingus built on Ellington and took it further than Ellington.) Mingus began composing in his teens and continued throughout most of his life, building up an impressive body of works. Much of this music is present on these three albums.
MINGUS REVISITED was recorded in 1960, and at a time when I was living in
The Limelight reissue replaced Martin Williams' original and informative liner notes with even more informative notes by producer Leonard Feather -- included with the CD -- in which he details the somewhat devious way in which Mingus managed to turn a small group recording date into a twenty-piece orchestral extravaganza -- and the extravagance was mostly budgetary, paying for all those musicians. The rationale was to record some compositions Mingus had been keeping in his trunk, compositions which were essentially "pre-Bird," or written prior to Charlie Parker's impact on jazz and the development of the Bop vocabulary -- at a time when Swing was the ascendant form of jazz.
When PRE-BIRD was released I reviewed it for METRONOME, and before I wrote that review I called Mingus up and asked him for the years in which he composed the album's pieces. Those years are noted on the back of that LP in my handwriting. They do not exactly match up with the dates alluded to in the notes for the album, however. I suspect Mingus's memory was at fault -- in later years he sometimes would call me up, knowing I had a copy of a mimeographed Swedish discography of his music, to ask me about titles he had used.
In any event, the album has an excellent performance of Mingus's earliest known composition, "Half-Mast Inhibition," written when he was a teenager. Mingus told me he wrote it in 1939, when he was 17; the liner notes suggest 1941, when he was 19. But Williams states it was "written when Mingus was only eighteen." He adds, "It is almost a written 'concert' work," and it is performed by a 22-piece orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller. The music is by turns wistful and gay, embodying carousel melodies and sections in waltz-time (3/4) and is achingly beautiful. Clearly an auspicious beginning for Mingus's musical career, even if it languished, unperformed, for at least twenty years.
The other piece which Mingus told me dated to 1939 is "Mingus Fingus No. 2," which was first performed (and recorded) by the Lionel Hampton Band in 1947, when Mingus was playing bass for Hampton. It's very complex and surprisingly boppish for a pre-bop work. And it sounds like it would have been a better fit for the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band of 1947. (
There are two "songs" on the album, both of which had earlier performances recorded (in the mid-fifties) for Mingus's Debut label. They are "Eclipse" (dated by Mingus to 1944-45) and "Weird Nightmare" (1943). Both have unusual melodies and treat the (female) vocalist as another instrument. The lyrics of "Eclipse" speak of the moon eclipsing the sun and people hiding their eyes, but it's not hard to read between the lines and realize that the lyrics are really about mixed-race relationships and the way a mixed-race couple was viewed in
In addition to these "pre-Bird" pieces the album has two apparently contemporary compositions, "Prayer For Passive Resistance" (which has a searing Yusef Lateef tenor solo), and "Bemoanable Lady," a bow to Ellington which becomes a stunning vehicle for Eric Dolphy on alto sax. (Mingus told me he wrote music for a contest for Ellington-like works circa 1941; that may be when he wrote "Bemoanable Lady," but he didn't give me a date for that piece.) Also on the album are two "Duke Ellington" pieces (I use quotes because one of them, "Take The 'A' Train," was actually written by Ellington's alter-ego, Billy Strayhorn) to which Mingus has added two other pieces in counterpoint. This is something Mingus had done before, taking two songs based on (or nearly on) the same chord structure, and playing them simultaneously, once calling one such combination "The Song of the Thief." In this case "Take The 'A' Train" has "Exactly Like You" interpolated in it, while "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" has "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (also by Ellington) interpolated.
"Half-Mast Inhibition," "Mingus Fingus No. 2" and "Bemoanable Lady" are performed by a twenty-two piece orchestra; the remaining tracks are by a smaller, nine-piece band which still has a very full, orchestral sound due to Mingus's arrangements.
This must have whetted Mingus's appetite for working with a large orchestra. He'd been composing for larger orchestras all along, but rarely had the (financial) opportunity to hear his pieces performed by a large orchestra, stripping his pieces down for quartet and quintet performances. (This in part explains why even with small groups he got a "large" sound -- each instrument played separate lines originally intended for sections of instruments, rather than the simple riffing accompaniments behind a solo horn more common in jazz.)
On October 12, 1962, Mingus achieved a long-sought dream: a Town Hall (NYC) concert with a thirty-piece orchestra. And what an orchestra! Seven trumpets, six trombones, four alto saxes, two tenor saxes, two baritone saxes, oboe, contrabass clarinet, two pianos, guitar, bass (Milt Hinton playing bass while Mingus conducted), and drums, vibes, and additional percussion from a three-man percussion section.
I went to that "concert." It was, from some people's point of view, a disaster -- and that's the way many remember it. But the problem was that it wasn't really a concert -- it was a recording session with an audience -- and United Artists pushed it forward in time by five weeks (a month) which caught Mingus nearly unprepared. He got no sleep the two nights before the event as he feverishly tried to prepare all the necessary music, and during most of that night in Town Hall several copyists sat onstage at a card table still copying out the scores for the orchestra -- much of which of necessity went unperformed.
Mingus opened the evening by apologizing to the audience, telling them they'd been misled if they were expecting a straight concert, and offering refunds to anyone who wanted to leave, then and there. Some did leave, but the Hall remained packed. What followed was strange, thrilling, and frustrating. A great deal of exciting music was performed, but often right in the middle of a cooking solo an engineer would come onstage to tell Mingus that the tape wasn't rolling (or the mix was wrong, or something else) and the music would stop, only to be started once again at the top. In my opinion United Artists botched things throughout -- production and engineering was, at that time, incompetent. Add to this the fact that Mingus was using it as a recording session, and would have different sections of a piece performed separately for later editing together, and you can begin to appreciate the confusion felt by some of the audience.
Midway through Mingus called an intermission. The orchestra left the stage and was replaced by Mingus's uncle, Fess Williams, with a septet. Williams was an alto player who had been around since the twenties, and his group included a number of his old bandmates, plus a few younger guys, one of whom was Eric Dolphy. Williams played a traditional set, enlivened by some hot performances by both the young and old members of the group and climaxed by Williams' demonstration of "rotary breathing" which is a technique that allows a horn player to hold a note indefinitely without pause -- in Williams' case up to five minutes. It brought down the house. And was apparently never recorded; nothing has ever been released of it.
After the intermission set, the orchestra returned and continued battling the engineers until midnight. New York has tough union rules, and apparently the stagehands union had no plans to work after midnight (not that they were even needed, but union rules required their presence). At this point I'll quote from Brian Priestley's notes from the CD:
"Then, according to Ted White, 'while in the middle of [the] piece, Mingus received a signal and stopped the music.'
"And that was nearly that. It was approaching midnight. Mingus apologized to the audience, as he had done several times earlier, and began to leave the stage to desultory applause. 'But while a few musicians were already packing their instruments,' said White, 'others were not content to let the show die so easily. Clark Terry...now began sounding out a familiar riff, and within seconds "In A Mellotone" had been picked up by most of the others in the brass section.' The impromptu version, less well recorded since the players stood informally at the front of the stage, developed into a solo by [Jerome] Richardson, followed by Pepper Adams, Terry and [Britt] Woodman. But, as Woodman got under way the riffs were taken over by two stagehands and, 'with the audience rising to boo, the two men began to pull the curtains closed.'" (I hope you'll forgive me for working in those quotes from myself; they originally appeared in my writeup of the event in JAZZ magazine, and Priestley drew extensively upon them for his liner notes.)
At that time United Artists had begun an ambitious jazz program, bringing out gatefold LPs with arty black and white covers. When TOWN HALL CONCERT was released the LP contained only 36 minutes of rather poorly recorded -- and, as it turned out, badly mixed and mastered -- music, with the tracks mislabled and a cheaper, last-minute package. (Obviously intended to be a gatefold package, it was released as a non-gatefold, with photos -- one wraparound photo actually -- on the front and back cover, and the liner notes on a separate insert sheet. The photo, blurred and indistinct, shows the stage full of musicians, Mingus with his back to the camera talking to Eric Dolphy in the midst of them.) Not only was the album thus botched, two pieces had been retitled by UA, one of them quite insultingly. "In A Mellotone," a Duke Ellington standard, was retitled "Finale" (maybe UA thought they could avoid royalties) -- which of course it was, in terms of the "concert" and the night. But, worse, "Duke's Choice," a Mingus composition, was retitled "Don't Come Back," which may well have summed up UA's feelings about the whole affair, on which it spent so much money, to so little (apparent) result. The
"I would surmise that at least an hour of Mingus's music came off well -- excluding the false starts etc.', wrote Ted White in JAZZ. White was dismayed that the LP of the concert [which I also reviewed for JAZZ], which sadly helped to underline the reputation of the concert itself, was only 36 minutes long. Now at last, 32 years after the fact, we can see that he was right, even though some takes which he described may -- incredibly enough -- have not been actually recorded or were erased at the time. In addition, for whatever reasons, four tracks were shortened on the LP and five tracks now released for the first time were not included. But the surviving tapes (which, by the way, were mastered without Mingus's knowledge or participation) show evidence of indecision, for some tracks were prepared for possible use which were not issued. Not the least of the problems of the 1963 release was that the LP masters acquired much distortion not present on the original recordings." (My suspicion is that UA originally planned for a double-LP -- which would have worked with gatefold packaging -- and that would fit with the present 68-minute CD.)
"As a result," Priestley explains, "the present digital remastering sounds far better than anyone dared to hope. And, thanks to the restored sound, much of the music springs to life far more vividly than those familiar with the LP would predict." Indeed it does. This CD version is the first valid release of this concert recording, the first to capture the full measure of the music I heard that night in 1962. This time it was done right.
Well, almost. The centerpiece of the concert is "Epitaph Part 1." This piece was performed twice at that concert, and I was very annoyed in 1963 when what I regarded as the inferior version -- with a showboating section in which Mingus and Dolphy exchange "talking" lines -- was what ended up on the LP. This was the second performance of the piece that night. I thought the first hadn't been recorded -- to which Priestley alludes above -- but I was wrong. And so was Priestley, who says, "the real discovery is that, apparently after clearing the hall, the band stayed behind and recorded a further take of 'Epitaph Part 1.' Better performed, more relaxed, and containing a new Dolphy solo, this version runs on longer than the first issued version and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.... Why it was not chosen for release is a mystery, and the fact that it ends without applause doesn't mean this isn't one of the most impressive performances of the entire concert." Well, he's right about that last, but wrong that it was recorded after midnight. (Priestley is British and probably unaware of the inflexibility of
"Epitaph" was originally a single piece in three parts, originally annotated as "Main Score Part 1," etc. Mingus is quoted (from JAZZ): "The music was all one suite...but we had different copyists, so for their purposes I marked off the score in sections, Parts 1, 2 and 3."
From this quote has arisen a monumental misunderstanding, now perpetuated by Mingus scholars and conductor-composer Gunther Schuller, that everything prepared for that Town Hall Concert was part of one massive work called "Epitaph." It's not true. Reference to the Blue Note CD shows that there were at least eight separate and separately titled Mingus compositions played at that concert, most of them previously available in recordings by smaller groups. "Epitaph" itself opens with the brooding chords of "Pithecanthropus Erectus," but veers in another direction (disappointing me at first -- I wanted to hear "Pithecanthropus Erectus," one of my all-time favorite Mingus compositions, done orchestrally).
Nonetheless, this misunderstanding is perpetuated -- monumentalized in fact -- on EPITAPH, the two-CD album released by
Schuller has the credentials to do this -- he had earned Mingus's approval on those earlier occasions when he conducted for him -- and the sensitivity. Had he not promulgated the notion of "Epitaph" as one inclusive suite I'd have no real quarrel with him. The component pieces of "Epitaph" date back to the late forties, fifties and early sixties, and include such "hits" as "Better Get It In Your Soul." They necessarily do not include any of Mingus's post-1962 works. As such, EPITAPH is a well-performed, well-recorded collection of Mingus compositions, performed as he always wanted to hear them performed by a large orchestra.
Schuller in his extensive liner notes also revisits the 1962 Town Hall Concert, which he describes as "a fiasco," although he explains the many problems not under Mingus's control that night. It is clear that part of his motivation in undertaking this project is to clear Mingus's name and present at last the program of music Mingus had intended for that concert, in finished form. At that time he had only the LP from 1963 for reference: "What came out on the Town Hall recording issued by United Artists is fragmentary and disparate. Titles were mislabelled, splicing and editing was done without Mingus' knowledge, and little of the two hours of recorded music appeared on the album." So it made sense to do it right this time and, in effect, set the record straight.
Oddly enough, now that we have the Blue Note CD of the "complete" recordings of that concert, we can check and see that EPITAPH does not include "Duke's Choice" and "Portrait." I have no idea why, save that they apparently weren't found in those old scores, and thus were overlooked by Schuller. What can be found on EPITAPH are some of Mingus's other early ambitious compositions of the forties, such as "Moods in Mambo" (sounds like a Stan Kenton title, but the piece was so complex that the group it was originally written for couldn't perform it) and "Chill of Death." These pieces lack the easy flow of later Mingus pieces like "Freedom," but bristle with ideas, as if Mingus wanted to try to cram everything he knew then into them. They are very ambitious and, in retrospect (fifty years' hindsight) quite well accomplished -- and they're a decade or more before their time in terms of their musical thinking.
The performance here (one of two concerts given; the second was at
So what we have here are three excellent, highly recommended albums, offering several hours of Charles Mingus's best and most ambitious compositions and chronicling a major event in his career. (I'm not sure if EPITAPH is available as a commercial video -- my copy was taped off the air -- but if it is, it's well worth having. The performance is the same one used for the album -- the CD is essentially the soundtrack -- and both the sound and the video meet high standards, bringing the viewer/listener right on stage for the concert itself.) These albums are must-haves for anyone who enjoys the music of Mingus.
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