JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP (
These two CDs are Charles Mingus’s earliest important recordings.
Mingus had recorded in 1947 with Lionel Hampton (while playing bass in
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
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,
Following those recording sessions Mingus’s next album as a leader was PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS for
“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
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
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] ‘
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
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
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
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
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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