Mingus Ah Um [Legacy Edition]
May 29, 2009 Web Exclusive
NOTE: Most musicologists agree that 1959 was to jazz what 1967 was to rock 'n' roll (and, subsequently, music-milestone marketing). For whatever reason, cosmic or otherwise, its heaviest hitters were all swinging in peak form. Here's a brief list: Thelonious Monk: The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall; Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come; John Coltrane: Giant Steps; Miles Davis: Kind of Blue; Duke Ellington: Jazz Party; Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um; The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out; and Ray Charles: The Genius of Ray Charles. Columbia Records was lucky enough to have waxed a few of those watersheds and is now presenting them in 50th anniversary editions as part of its "1959 - Jazz's Greatest Year" reissue campaign. Under the Radar examines three of those titles.
Mingus was one prolific motherfucker in jazz's greatest year. That February he was bunkered in New York's Atlantic Studios whipping up Blues & Roots for the Ertegun brothers. Three months later he tromped off to 30th Street to drop Mingus Ah Um in time to be lugged by college swellheads to off-campus soirees. That November he was back in the studio yet again, prepping Mingus Dynasty for the new decade.
This Columbia reissue, combining Mingus Ah Um with its 1960 follow-up and assorted related leftovers, essentially accounts for the bassist's creative whereabouts in 1959 (although if you're interested in his extracurricular pursuits, I highly recommend his colorful 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog). The conundrum, of course, is that the presentation is too overwhelming for the casual fan and the diehard already owns this stuff, down to the last vault morsel. Unless they're PDF freaks, masochistic completists, or genuinely interested in reissue producer Michael Cuscuna's perspective on the albums, jazz heads are advised to let sleeping wallets lie. Neophytes would be better off buying Mingus Ah Um as a stand-alone and holding off on Dynasty. It's a meatier disc sonically, but lacks its predecessor's freewheeling joie de vivre.
Of course, that's not Dynasty's fault. Ah Um casts quite a, um, shadow. It's damn near perfect, opening with "Better Git It in Your Soul," one of the slammingest statements of intent to ever spin at 33 1/3. The assembled cook at an exuberant temperature, driven by Mingus' on-off-mike shouts of coarse, exuberant joy. "Oh, yeah!" he barks at strategic intervals. (The exclamation/trademark would later grace a '62 LP.) While Mingus encourages, drummer Dannie Richmond commands, insistent behind the kit. Tributes abound in the Lester Young eulogy "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," featuring John Handy's tenor sax aching through a spectral mist, the Morton nod "Jelly Roll," and an "Open Letter to Duke" scrawled to Mr. Ellington, whose "Mood Indigo" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" were Mingus-stamped on Dynasty.
The famous "Fables of Faubus" has outpaced the legacy of its name-checked target, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who in 1957 used National Guardsmen to prevent a group of black students from entering Little Rock High School then shut down the entire city's school system for the 1958-59 academic year (great time for jazz, not so much for America). The horn section sounds simultaneously scornful and amused, with Mingus' defiant thumps mocking its gasbag subject. "Pussy Cat Dues" enters a Basin Street bordello on Jimmy Knepper's trombone prowl; Horace Parlan wiggles his ivory eyebrows, digging through his pockets for cash.
Dynasty just can't compete with all that color, despite its curious sleeve depiction of Mingus in Oriental garb: Ming Dynasty, geddit? The bassist audaciously augments his sound with vibes, cellos, and flutes, but they seem out of place—too grand, too serious. (Richard Williams' muted trumpet, however, is a nice touch.) "Slop" takes a stab at Ah Um's "Git It" and slips on its own sweat. Its counterpoint "Diane" is a quite lovely dance between Mingus and pianist Roland Hanna. The most notable nugget about "Gunslinging Bird" is its original title: "If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats."
As on most "special" editions, the bonus material is seldom illuminating, largely a passel of alternate takes you might endure once then retire forever. "Better Git It in Your Soul" is interesting in part because you get to hear the horn section finesse through a serious biff; otherwise, the released version is far superior. "Pedal Point Blues," "GG Train," and "Girl of My Dreams" were waxed at the Ah Um sessions but add nothing. The best extra is perhaps the Mingus crew backing vocalist Honey "Honi" Gordon on "Strollin' (Nostalgia in Times Square)" during the recording of Dynasty. The track wasn't used and in fact went unheard for two-plus decades, but Gordon and Mingus occasionally unpacked it live. In any case, one can only hope that when Mingus finally flipped the calendar past the greatest year in jazz, dude hit the mattress for a well-deserved nap. (www.mingusmingusmingus.com)
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