Monday, 9 July 2018

Charles Mingus ‎– Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Style: Hard Bop, Bop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Columbia

Tracklist:
01.   Better Git It In Your Soul
02.   Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
03.   Boogie Stop Shuffle
04.   Self-Portrait In Three Colors
05.   Open Letter To Duke
06.   Bird Calls
07.   Fables Of Faubus
08.   Pussy Cat Dues
09.   Jelly Roll
10.   Pedal Point Blues
11.   GG Train
12.   Girl Of My Dreams

Credits: Bass [Contrebass], Written-By – Charles Mingus Drums – Dannie Richmond Piano – Horace Parlan Saxophone – Booker Erwin, John Handy, Shafi Hadi Trombone – Jimmy Knepper, Willie Dennis Liner Notes – Marc Berhardt


Drop the needle on Charles Mingus' bluesy call to prayer on "Better Git It In Your Soul" and Legacy's decision to include Ah Um in its vinyl series comes into sharp focus. There's simply no better way to hear the 1959 Columbia masterpiece than on 12" vinyl and, while it may be hard to detect the business logic behind the series, the meticulous remastering by Allan Tucker makes clear the aesthetic motive.  
During the last decade, the major jazz labels have essentially been in the reissue business. Archival photos and historical essays have cluttered CD liner notes and unreleased tracks, rehearsals and false starts have been tacked onto LP-length albums to fill 80-minute digital capacities. On their vinyl series, Legacy has taken a minimalist approach. Duplicating the original LP sleeve with its quirky, geometric painting on front and the detailed 1959 notes by Mingus biographer Diane Dorr-Dorynek on the back, the focus is once again on the incredible music and, because of the limited LP format, it's the original nine tracks that Mingus intended.  
Ah Um represented a turning point in Mingus' career on multiple fronts. The personnel is a mix of mainstays from the bassist's '50s ensembles and newer voices that would play an increasingly important role in Mingus' tumultuous output during the '60s. Producer Teo Macero began his career on sax and was an early participant in Mingus' Jazz Workshops before arranging the Columbia sessions that would result in Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty (Legacy, 1959) and later the bassist's triumphant return to the label with Let My Children Hear Music (1972). A transition is also apparent in the choice of material, as Mingus moves away from the third-stream, modernist vision—"Self Portrait in Three Colors"—cultivated in the mid-'50s to a more guttural, increasingly political style embodied by the still lyricless "Fables of Faubus."
Matthew Miller/ All About Jazz
Chuckle a pitying chuckle over Allaboutjazz.com's guide "1959: The Most Creative Year in Jazz." Miles Davis's Kind of Blue: "the quintessential jazz album"; Coltrane's Giant Steps: "a major landmark in jazz history"; Brubeck's "Take Five": "one of the most popular tunes in jazz"; Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come: "the essential free jazz album." Mingus Ah Um? "Essential to Mingus fans and jazz aficionados" (emphasis mine). 
Poor big-bellied, cigar-loving, temperamental, insecure, misogynistic Charles Mingus. While routinely placed on best-of-genre lists and talked about as one of the preeminent bassists and bandleaders in jazz, his best albums never clump comfortably with anyone else's, or with any particular subset of casual jazz listeners. They're too spirited for cocktail hour, too rough and moody for listeners who revel in crafstmanship, and not radical enough for daredevils. 
Then again, Mingus' music never seemed comfortable outside its own world, either. At the dawn of both modal and free jazz, he kept solos short and music composed (even if, as with 1959's Atlantic recording Blues and Roots, the players didn't see the charts before the studio date). In an era where big bands were left behind for small combos or reimagined entirely (as with, say, John Coltrane's late albums), Mingus was a Duke Ellington acolyte who approached his pieces with the formality of an orchestral composer. 
"Better Git It in Your Soul"-- if Mingus had his own sound, Mingus Ah Um's opener was it: a warm, striding, Sunday-morning tune carried on moaning horns; a friendly, convivial atmosphere punctuated by hollers Mingus didn't bother suppressing in the studio. Mingus, born to a black father and Chinese-American mother who allowed only church music in the house, embraced blues and gospel in the complex way one embraces a friend they've fallen out of touch with, or their hometown-- cautiously; with a burdened and deep-buried love. The song never struck me as primitive or rootsy, but a comic-book version of primitive, rootsy music-- a form reduced to its most basic shapes and traits; a form almost abstracted. 
The album rolls from there. And while "Better Git" is as good a definition of Mingus there is, the album is remarkably diverse: Set pieces like "Fables of Faubus" or "Jelly Roll" (which are a jazz analog to the Beatles's warped, fruity variations on early British pop, like "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite") play alongside factory-pressed bop- and swing-style songs like "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and the mournful, reverent balladry of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat". Harmonies invoke modern classical music almost as often as blues, and his chosen instrumentalists spend as much effort adding color to the ensemble as personality to their brief solos. 
Regarding the product at hand: a 2xCD 50th anniversary "Legacy Edition" with a list price of $25. The remaster is the same one performed by Mark Wilder in the late 1990s and still in print. Along with a couple of alternate takes, the second disc contains Mingus Dynasty, an uneven and far less interesting album recorded later in 1959 and issued early in 1960. The liner notes are slim and strangely conceived (do I need to read that a song on this album is a "grand slam home run" even though I clearly have already purchased it?). The bonus material on the second disc, in PDF format, should've been in the booklet if they're charging $25 for a package that probably didn't demand a lot of work to re-release. That's that. 
I'm sure I'm not versed enough in jazz to assess what it is that makes Mingus Mingus, but listening to Ah Um again-- an album I plucked from my dad's collection at age 15-- I remember sitting in my family's basement thinking that I had no idea jazz could be funny. (I hadn't yet heard Thelonious Monk.) I thought jazz was all elegance and poise. I remember reading transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos and wondering if my intellectual awe would translate to a real, visceral love of the music. It didn't-- I felt detached. Mingus was slurring and gestural. His compositions that looked prim on paper sounded rusted and sun-bleached in performance. The fiery ones sounded a little tight-assed and penned-in-- you could almost hear the band bucking with discomfort at the form they found themselves playing in. The music had character; it beamed. Still does.
Mike Powell / Pitchfork 

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