Freshness is a quality of jazz that both excites and vexes its younger players. Unlike the mass-market driven "freshness" of pop music, the freshness of jazz lies solely in the realm of artistry, free from the boundaries of time and the whims of music video producers and radio payola. The proof? When a tape of a concert given by a legendary jazz group some forty-odd years ago surfaces, it is likely to generate as much buzz as the latest new release by one of the music's young lions.
Such is the case with this remarkable double CD by the Charles Mingus Sextet, recorded live in concert at Cornell University on March 18, 1964. This is the group that successfully toured Europe a short time later, securing its place in jazz history through numerous concert recordings. Thanks to the dedication of Sue Mingus, who has undertaken the herculean task of cataloging and authorizing the legal reissues of many of her late husband's monumental performances, this recently discovered pre-tour concert is now available to us through the efforts of Blue Note and its tireless producer, Michael Cuscuna.
This recording features the same dynamic lineup as the classic Town Hall Concert
(which was recorded about a month after this performance and traditionally has been considered the "warm up date" for the European tour): bassist Mingus; free-form reedman Eric Dolphy on alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet; boppish Clifford Jordan on tenor sax; Johnny Coles, who could effectively bridge the gap between the two reed players, on trumpet; Jaki Byard on piano; and drummer Dannie Richmond. The recording quality is better than average, but still suffers somewhat from ensembles and soloists occasionally going off-mic, thus being under-recorded. Additional bass equalization has been added to bring Mingus forward in the ensemble blend, but this decision results in the drums often sounding muddy and dense.
The group opens this concert with two solo pieces, "ATFW You" and "Sophisticated Lady." Pianist Jaki Byard glows under the spotlight in a scintillating tribute to keyboard giants Art Tatum "AT" and Fats Waller "FW". Blistering stride, complex cascading sheets of parallel scales, and a sprinkling of borrowed classical themes are blended together by Byard into a stunning five minute jazz piano history lesson. The next soloist is Mingus, backed discreetly by Byard, exploring Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."
Mingus then launches straightway into a half-hour long rendition of "Fables of Faubus." Probably the most famous of Mingus' "protest songs," it is an acerbic essay on segregation and its proponents. The lyrics intermittently shouted by the band are difficult to make out, but the horns come through loud and clear. The soloists, whose efforts are punctuated by tempo shifts, ensemble passages, and improvised riffs, are Coles, Byard, Jordan, Mingus, and Dolphy on bass clarinet.
Making its concert debut at Cornell is Mingus' elegant "Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk." Byard weaves a rich tapestry decorated by the muted adornments of Johnny Coles. Jordan, following a break by Mingus, paves the way for Dolphy's frantic bass clarinet.
Disc one ends with the Mingus band returning to their musical roots and diving into "Take The ‘A' Train." After an uncharacteristically wobbly Coles solo, Byard takes over and transitions into a powerful stride feel that elicits the approval of both Mingus and the audience. The band swings powerfully behind Jordan, and a Mingus-Richmond duo leads into a blazing drum solo that elevates both the energy and tempo of the performance in anticipation of Dolphy's powerful though unusually short bass clarinet solo. Mingus guides the band back down to Earth in the coda, and then announces intermission.
Disc two contains the second half of the concert, which opens by crossing the third stream into the realm of Mingus' extended composition "Meditations." The first seven minutes or so of this complex work involve the band stating several written themes that demonstrate Mingus' appreciation for the works of contemporary orchestral composers. Then the band shifts into jazz time and begins an extended section of solos by Dolphy on bass clarinet, Byard, Coles, a Mingus-Byard duo, Jordan, the full ensemble, and finally the recapitulation of the original theme on arco
bass and flute.
Next, the band shifts into a Basie blues groove for "So Long Eric," with solos by Coles, Byard (who treats us to yet another display of his classic stride piano skills), and Jordan, with Dannie Richmond punctuating the head out.
Johnny "O'Coles," the "only Irishman in the band" according to a jovial Mingus, solos on a pleasing jazz waltz version of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," a day-late nod to St. Patrick's day. The concert closes with a flute feature for Dolphy, the under-appreciated "Jitterbug Waltz" by Fats Waller. Byard and Jordan keep the heat burning through their solos, and Dolphy closes out the tune, again on flute.
As great a his players were, the key to the spontaneity of Mingus' groups was his completely non-scripted approach to his music. Mingus called tunes at his whim and either encouraged or derided his musicians on the bandstand depending on his mood, joking with them, singing riffs, ordering the solos, throttling forward or pulling back tempos. His erratic brilliance cultivated a musical unit that remained unmatched until the advent of the great Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.
Some younger mainstream jazz recording artists might collectively sigh at the thought of yet another reissue
crowding the already limited space given to jazz in most retail outlets. But this radiant addition to the Mingus discography, freshness-dated for eternity, certainly merits inclusion in the racks.