Charles Mingus: The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings

Mingus Ah Um CK 65512

Mingus Dynasty CK 65513

Alternate Takes CK 65514


Forty years after they were recorded, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty remain fresh, bold statements. The songs swing hard, are compositionally concise, and have a huge range of dynamics and coloration. The musicians interpreting Mingus’ compositions were at the 99th percentile of their art form. These qualities qualify them as classic reference points in the jazz and improvisers catalog.

With these re-issues, we finally have the opportunity to hear the complete versions as the composer intended, unbound by the restrictions of the long-playing vinyl records of the time. The Mingus
compositional form was anything but the ‘concocted’ sound he criticizes in his original albumnotes. In 1959, Mingus was composing primarily without the use of written material. He would work out a composition by playing the scale and chord progressions on piano. Based on the mood Mingus put into thesong, the musicians could play out their own conceptions in group lines and solos.

Mingus Ah Um opens with two 12-bar blues, “Better Git It In Your Soul” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” now familiar as

standards. They are quite far apart in mood, one being akin to a gospel shout, the other a respectful ballad to the memory of tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

On “…Soul,” one can hear Mingus, schooled in the ways of the Black-American church tradition, shouting in the background. “Oh, yes! Lord, I know!” On another part he sings the bass line of  Horace Parlan’s piano, later singing the same theme in back of Booker Ervin’s tenor and Jimmy Knepper’s trombone vamp, all the while retaining an independent double-bass rhythm line. The composition is distinguished by tension-release cycles taken at roller-coaster tempo.

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” refers to the fashionable lids Lester Young wore. The song is one of the more tender ballads in the jazz repertoire and later inspired the lyrics, “He put all his soul into the tenor saxophone; he had a way of talking, was a language of his own.” The lyrics reflect Mingus’ own approach to music.

High artistic tension co-existing with intense collaboration were trademarks of Mingus’ bands. Listen to Horace Parlan chording behind Handy’s loving solo on “Pork Pie Hat.” At 2:08 Parlan breaks the mood by hitting a chord extra hard. Handy stops, lets the chord die, and then they continue on in the original vein. But one of the more astonishing moments in jazz occurs when Handy begins flutter-tonguing his reed. Mingus instantly responds with a bass tremolo. The device lasts for a full 18 seconds, and the release can only bring a gasp of incredulity from the listener. Unfortunately, there is a low level buzz on the left channel, a defect that is also present on earlier CD releases.

The music on Mingus Dynasty is no less fascinating. Mingus was pushing the music in a  philosophical direction. In his liner notes, an essential essay for all artists, he outlines his approach: don’t play what others have played, play yourself. He speaks of Charlie Parker’s bringing to the music “a primitive, supra-mind communication I’d only heard in the late Beethoven quartets and even more, in Stravinsky.” Mingus carried this concept into his composition “Gunslinging Bird,” whose full title was “If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” There’s no copycatting on these two CDs, and when gunslinging happen, there’s a whole lot of bulls-eyes with holes dead center.

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