Sunday, March 13, 2011

Charles Mingus — Cornell 1964

Long-lost jazz recordings pique my interest as much as the tease of the most infamous lost films. The frequent airing of Miles Davis' vault brings as much valuable material to me as the discovery of the lost footage in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I would welcome a concert from Thelonious Monk with the same joy as I would those precious excised minutes from The Magnificent Ambersons. Imagine my delight, then, when Sue Mingus, Charles Mingus' widow, discovered tapes of what might have been her husband's finest band at the top of their powers. Remastered and released in full, Cornell 1964 blows previous Blue Note discoveries out of the water, including the rousing but incomplete show of John Coltrane teaming with Thelonious Monk.

Mingus' mid-'60s sextet is the source of as many live recordings as Miles' second quintet or Coltrane's quartet, both of which operated around the same time that Mingus collected his group to tour Europe. Before leaving, however, Mingus held an impromptu concert at Cornell University, a gig so secretive and spontaneous only those who were there knew about it. An ostensible warm-up gig -- the group would play their noted Town Hall concert less than three weeks later and would then depart for the much-bootlegged European tour -- the Cornell gig now stands as perhaps the definitive document of the sextet's short-lived existence.

Funnily enough, however, the show's first eight minutes do not highlight the sextet at all. Instead of launching into group improvisation, Mingus opens the show with two solo spotlights, one for pianist Jaki Byard and one for himself. "ATFW You," a tribute to Art Tatum and Fats Waller, rollicks out of the gate with bouncy block chords, not only making an instant case for the underrated Byard's prodigious, genre-leaping skill but setting the tone for the rest of the evening, one seeped in reverence and irreverence for jazz history. Mingus then comes in for a rendition of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," and within seconds the gulf of interest, talent and grace between Mingus' fretwork and the average rock bass solo is unmistakable. Mingus's bass is lyrical, occasionally playful and intense, and he plays with such verve that one suspects, by the end of the piece, a fired bullet would simply shatter on one of his calluses.

Then, the band comes out swinging, in more ways than one. Slurred bass clarinet and tenor sax lines from Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan, respectively, introduce the riff to "Fables of Faubus," Mingus' sardonic ode to the Arkansas governor who defied the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court and refused to let the Little Rock Nine into white public schools. A version of "Fables of Faubus" has lyrics that make the political attack more pointed, but it should be noted that Mingus was one of the few composers, of jazz or any genre, who could make instrumental music funny. The 30-minute, wordless rendition here, the centerpiece of the first CD, is simply hysterical. With Dolphy's light brand of free jazz involved, the song's smooth riff gets chopped up by bass clarinet squawks. As the piece weaves through the solos and group improvisations, the group finds new ways to snipe at Faubus. Byard and Mingus trade perfectly timed references, from Byard's use of corny nationalist folk like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and Chopin's "Funeral March" to Mingus executing a sudden segue into "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." The already-potent satire explodes with these allusions and their connotations. It's also a pleasure to hear trumpeter Johnny Coles so clear and piercing here, as he would spend much of the European tour terribly ill. Not the strongest player, Coles instead hones his notes to a dart that can poke through the wall of sound made by the others.

Amazingly, this half-hour tour-de-force is not only not the climax of the show (in fact, it's the opposite, serving to get the audience hooked), it is not even the finest moment of the performance. Disc two contains another half-hour improvisation around another of Mingus' political songs, in this case "Meditations" (short for "Meditations on Integration"). Hauntingly started on Dolphy's flute and arco bass by Mingus, morphs into such an astonishing sonic journey that the song feels both longer and shorter than its running time and features such perfect interplay between the musicians that the sextet sounds much larger, orchestral even. At times, Dolphy's clarinet and Jordan's sax play off each other in such harmony that I started to think only one of them was playing even though I was hearing sounds exclusive to each instrument back-to-back. Coles even perks up here and bolster his precision playing, while Dannie Richmond not only holds down the rhythm but adds to the improvised yet carefully charted direction. Byard, once more, slays, and Mingus plays off all of them and maintains that indefatigable swing that informed all of his compositions, even the orchestral ones.

The rest of the tracks offer their own delights. Mingus returns to his Ellington worship with a rousing version of "Take the 'A' Train," one that captures and magnifies the lyrical imagery of Duke's composition but turns the jaunty ride through Brooklyn and northern Manhattan into a fire-belching locomotive out of control, slowly gaining speed through a mid-tempo opening and a lovely interlude by Byard into increasingly fast solos. Mingus starts yelling at one point, and so does the crowd, who scream with laughter at the brilliant madness.

After "Meditations" comes "So Long Eric," Mingus' tongue-in-cheek but affectionate farewell to Dolphy, who planned to remain in Europe at the end of the band's tour, that was sincere enough to live on as a devastating eulogy when the multi-instrumentalist died three months later of diabetic shock in Berlin. I will save most of my superlatives for Dolphy for when I inevitably give him a post all his own, but the man was astonishing, capable not only of learning multiple instruments but mastering them and even forging new rules for each to pass down to future players. Whether playing the flute, bass clarinet or alto sax -- and all get a workout at this gig -- he sounds as if the finest players of each, those who dedicated their lives to only one of these instruments, could not approach him. What's more, Eric might have been the only person to come into contact with the highly bipolar Mingus and emerge physically and emotionally unscathed: not only did Mingus viciously berate others when angry, stories abound of him ruining a trombonist's embouchure with a punch to the mouth or slamming a piano lid down on the player's fingers, but of Dolphy he never had anything but praise and brotherly love. Here, with the band still in the States and all the players hale, the tune is still a fond thank-you to a friend, a sweet au revoir and not a goodbye. Later performances of the piece in Europe have a tinge of elegy to them, but this is the best way to remember Dolphy: its wit, sincerity and complexity matches the man for whom it is played.

That lighter tone informs the last two numbers, rarities played by Mingus for a laugh. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" gets a jazz makeover for St. Patrick's Day (the concert was March 18), and Coles gets his moment to fully shine with a fantastic, energetic yet still measured solo that moves so smoothly you wonder when he breathes. The performance closes with a reading of the standard "Jitterbug Waltz," faeturing Dolphy back on flute playing off Byard while Mingus and Richmond sync up in the way that only they could; Richmond was the only person strong enough to see it through to the end with Mingus, joining his group in 1957 and staying by the mercurial bassist/composer until Mingus died in 1979. Who knows how many fights Richmond witnessed or was even involved in, but Mingus must have known he could never have allowed the drummer to leave. He understood Mingus too well, understood what he wanted to do with his sound and where he wanted to travel sonically. Their hive-mind understanding is nakedly visible throughout this song, and as ever they move the music in different directions even as they maintain the original rhythm.

Cornell 1964 catches Mingus at a crossroads. Having assembled a band he knew go wherever he wanted them to, his happiness is infectious. He was also aware that, despite the obits, jazz was alive and well in 1964 and was heading in powerful, bold new directions (Mingus himself had only just released his jazz ballet The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, what may well be the apex of jazz, even over Miles' Kind of Blue). In a few months, however, the man he called a "saint" would die on a hospital bed, plunging Mingus into a depression he would not shake for nearly a decade of inactivity. Yet even in context, not even a wisp of a gray cloud hangs over this recording. Here are six hot players at the top of their improvisational game; just add swing and you've got one of the greatest live albums ever released.

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