Jazz Review: A Crucial Charles Mingus Concert Finally Gets Its Due

The newly restored version illuminates Mingus’s vision of the living history of jazz.Photograph from Ullstein Bild / Getty

Atlantic Records’ release last Friday of the two-CD set “Mingus at Carnegie Hall” makes available, for the first time, the complete concert that the bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus gave with two different groups on January 19, 1974. For me, it also solves a mystery and hits a personal sweet spot of fond reminiscence. The original album of that 1974 concert—a single LP featuring a jam session by a nonet on two classic themes associated with Duke Ellington—came out in January, 1975, and was the first review copy that I ever received. I was in high school at the time, and was part of a crew of announcers on the school’s intercom-based closed-circuit pseudo-radio-station (which “broadcast” during homeroom). During one of my sessions on the “air,” I played a brief sample of the Mingus LP and delivered a quick and enthusiastic review. But, when the album came out on CD in 1996, the liner notes, by Andrew Homzy, explained that the album was only the second part of the concert, and that the first half featured Mingus’s working band, a smaller group, playing a batch of his own compositions. I was instantly eager to hear those additional recordings—but, in those notes, Homzy also suggested that they hadn’t been released owing to a harshly negative review of those performances in the Times. Now, nearly half a century later, the whole concert is here, both to correct the record on those previously unreleased performances and to tell a powerful story about Mingus’s own artistry and its place in the music of the time.

The jam sessions featured on the original album were important from two distinct perspectives. From a practical standpoint, they reunited Mingus with three saxophonists who were also three of his greatest former band members: John Handy, Charles McPherson, and, above all, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. From an artistic one, they reaffirmed a crucial connection between Mingus and his essential musical forebear, Ellington, who was still alive at the time (he died in May, 1974). The jam session features renditions of “C Jam Blues” (composed by Ellington) and “Perdido” (composed by Ellington’s trombonist Juan Tizol), and it brings together several generations of stylistically diverse musicians to do so. The three guest saxophonists, all born in the nineteen-thirties, were among the leading post-bop stylists, in the vein of such musicians as Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. (Kirk, with his self-conscious element of theatrical display and substantive comedy, is one of the exemplary personalities of modern jazz—a modernist bridge between Fats Waller and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.) They joined three of the musicians in Mingus’s regular group—the tenor saxophonist George Adams, the baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and the pianist Don Pullen—who were all part of the avant-garde, leading second-generation figures of free jazz. Also featured is the trumpeter Jon Faddis, a precocious Dizzy Gillespie disciple and emulator who played bebop with a sincere passion and a neoclassical virtuosity—and who was only twenty at the time.

On its own, that jam session is a nearly uninterrupted highlight reel of thrills and inspirations, and the musicians embrace the playful air of competitive showmanship that adds to the conviviality of the reunion and links it to the popular, dance-hall tradition of Ellington’s concerts. Highlights include, in “Perdido,” Bluiett’s slamming avant-funk attack and Adams’s incisive blues groove alternating with high-velocity expatiations and bringing down the house with some serious fun by showing off in breath length and finger speed, as Faddis riffs exhortations behind him. In “C Jam Blues,” Handy, on tenor, opens with a solo that has been among my favorites from the time that I first heard it, a bluesy swagger of inexhaustible melody, a solo singable from start to finish, with the whole band riffing along to egg him on. Adams, starting at a height of dissonant complexity, interjects some relaxed melody, and then blasts off again into the stratosphere of high-intensity expressionism with the drummer, Dannie Richmond (who’d been performing with Mingus since 1957), intensifying the rhythms to match. Kirk, bursting in with a strutting groove broken by his diabolically furious yet deadly serious parody of Adams’s avant-gardisms, meshes a rollicking swing with colossal blasts from his tenor sax (airplane engines? hounds of hell?), along with a quotation of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” A recapitulation of the theme breaks into an extended collective cadenza, ending the concert with four minutes of out-of-tempo riffing and wailing (with Kirk on whistle) before arriving at the musical high-wire exhilaration of one of Kirk’s extended, circular-breathing drones. The original album had “C Jam Blues” as the A-side; the reissue follows the sequence of the concert, with that track as the culmination of the evening’s events.

The newly released first half of the concert—featuring the sextet of Adams, Bluiett, Faddis, Pullen, Richmond, and Mingus—showcases both the day-to-day preoccupations of the ensemble and Mingus’s own multilayered, self-revealing audacity. With his deep-rooted and deeply conceived connection to the entire history of jazz, Mingus thought little of the so-called avant-garde—he had respect for some of its musicians (such as Cecil Taylor) but low regard for its open repudiation of the classical elements of jazz. In “Mingus Speaks,” a book of interviews from 1972 to 1974 by John F. Goodman, Mingus mocks the idea of “free” jazz and says that he wanted to “get Clark Terry, Jascha Heifetz, Duke Ellington, uhh, Pablo Casals, Max Roach, Buddy Collette, and Dizzy Gillespie—and we’ll make you an atonal, avant-garde record that will cut everybody.”

Yet Mingus’s sextet featured Bluiett, a founder of St. Louis’s Black Artists Group, a multimedia collective that was a hothouse for the jazz avant-garde. Bluiett and Adams played in a style that, though rooted deep in the blues, extended through the innovations of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler to embrace torrential cascades of high-velocity notes and high-intensity phrases along with shrieks and cries at the high-pitched end of their instruments. As for Pullen, he’s second only to Taylor as a freely improvising pianist; there’s a rounded, ringing lyricism to his tone, and, with Mingus, he calls upon resources of candid and romantic melodic invention on the basis of which he builds his solos to swirling tumults of percussive and harmonic thunder. Faddis, the trumpeter, is a fascinating odd man out alongside this trio. Despite his impeccable bebop credentials, he added to the Mingus band an altogether different stylistic element: his command of high notes is exceptional, and he uses them with this sextet as the elder trumpeter Cat Anderson had used his in the Ellington orchestra—and as Anderson had also deployed them in a brief stint with Mingus in 1972, as a kind of super-treble lead to provide beams of light through the thickets of clamorous collective improvisation.

The four tracks from the first half of the concert feature three of Mingus’s enduring compositions, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” (which he’d first recorded in 1961), “Celia” (first recorded in 1957), and “Fables of Faubus” (first recorded in 1959), plus Pullen’s stomping blues “Big Alice.” All four of them—but especially Mingus’s three compositions—feature the three modernists at their boldest. In particular, “Celia,” a multi-segmented composition in a variety of tempi, originally featured gently ruminative cadenzas by the pianist Bill Evans. Here, at Carnegie Hall, those introverted interludes are replaced by up-tempo collective improvisations in which Faddis holds the center while Adams and Bluiett roar and rage, each of them sounding like a collective by himself. The piece concludes with roars and cries of such a collective improvisation over the bold and wondrous span of five minutes.

In these sextet tracks, Mingus takes apart his compositions with the same audacious, self-critical freedom with which Bob Dylan unmade and remade his own songs—or, rather, Mingus even more uninhibitedly lets his band take over his compositions. It’s as if Dylan had remained fairly consistent in his own approach but replaced the Band with the likes of James (Blood) Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, and Glenn Branca. This band of Mingus’s stands as his most coherent, consistent group since the late fifties. Far from merely recapitulating or revisiting the classical forms of jazz that he revered and embodied, Mingus extended it—even as jazz moved in directions that he found inimical. In working with younger musicians, whose spirit and imagination invigorated his music along with the new idiom that they helped to develop, Mingus tells a musical story of the expansive and comprehensive power of Black art. In demonstrating the infinite fecundity of jazz tradition, and advancing it as a creator, he opens its future vistas as a teacher. The newly restored version of “Mingus at Carnegie Hall” is in that sense one of his prime works, illuminating his vision of the living history of jazz and suggesting the mentorships, the dimensions, the grand embraces that were tragically foreclosed by his untimely death, in 1979, just five years after the concert.

New Yorker Favorites