Mingus music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. Though Charles Mingus may have gone out of his way to acknowledge how much the music of Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington inspired him, even the various tributes he penned (“Reincarnation of a Lovebird” for Parker, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” “Jelly Roll” for Jelly Roll Morton, “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat” for Lester Young) boast pure Mingus melodies with no room for obvious imitation. Similarly, few musicians have played “Mingus style” outside the context of Mingus bands. His influence has been enormous since his first Atlantic LPs in 1956, but this influence has been apparent primarily through its example of how to absorb jazz tradition without being tied to it, how to ignore current conventions and create your own.
“Pithecanthropus Erectus,” the opening track on Passions of a Man/An Anthology of His Atlantic Recordings, provides a catalog of Mingus innovations. The symmetrical chord sequences that dominated earlier jazz are replaced by what Mingus called “extended form”: a long, self-generating structure of pedal points, scales and be-bop harmonies that offers expanded melodic and textural possibilities. The tempo ebbs and flows like the pulse of a living organism, and the beat is often stated rather than implied. The sonic spectrum is also unprecedented, especially in a jazz quintet with only two horns: the musicians begin quietly but eventually erupt in furious bursts of ensemble energy that utilize collective improvisation, “noise” effects (squeals, cries, etc., on the saxes) and the vocal interjections of Mingus himself. What emerges is a programmatic image (in this case, the rise and fall of early man) without the sense of calculation one usually gets from program music.
Beyond his brilliance as a composer, Charles Mingus was one of the most commanding bandleaders in jazz history. He drove his players mercilessly to transcend their abilities. And, as Nat Hentoff says: “He did not protect his sidemen.” During the late Fifties and early Sixties (the years covered by Nostalgia in Times Square/The Immortal 1959 Sessions and parts of Passions of a Man), Mingus worked at length with many of his most sensitive students and thus produced many of his finest recordings.
Passions of a Man contains several masterpieces. “Haitian Fight Song” (a pinnacle of creative bass playing by Mingus the instrumentalist and enraged protest by Mingus the social critic), the blistering “Tonight at Noon” and two other items are included from a stunning 1957 quintet session that introduced trombonist Jimmy Knepper and drummer Dannie Richmond to the Mingus orbit. The tumultuous “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” sparked by Booker Ervin’s tongue-talking tenor-sax solo, features some of the most cataclysmic ensemble playing in the annals of jazz. “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” is the fiercest of Mingus’ many tunes based on the chord changes of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, with characteristic emoting by Ervin and Roland Kirk, plus a rare glimpse of Mingus the pianist.
Nostalgia in Times Square holds special attention because, in a sense, it’s all new. Side one contains four previously unreleased pieces (the twisting “GG Train” and the satirical “Girl of My Dreams” are best), while the remainder of the album presents unedited versions of ten compositions that were shortened for inclusion on Mingus, Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. Since the most famous songs (“Better Git Hit in Your Soul,” “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat,” “Fables of Faubus”) from the 1959 sessions are omitted, Nostalgia in Times Square will hardly replace the earlier LPs. Still, it’s nice to hear how strong some of the rest of the music was as originally realized. It’s also interesting to ponder the whole question of editing. “Open Letter to Duke,” “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and “Jelly Roll” may have been tightened up to bring about the transitions and climaxes more rapidly, but none were edited into posterity. On the other hand, we only have Passions of a Man‘s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” in an edited state, but it’s so great that way, who cares?
The past decade was an erratic period for Charles Mingus. Some of his music was as fine — and some as flawed — as any in his career. Fortunately, Passions of a Man includes three cuts from the 1974 Changes sessions, where a reconstituted Mingus band (featuring pianist Don Pullen and George Adams on tenor sax) attacks several fine tunes with free-form coherence. “Sue’s Changes,” in particular, stands as the ultimate example of extended form, a steadily unfolding reverie that contains more of Mingus’ many moods than any other single piece.
From the heights of his finest efforts, however, the attempts to accommodate fusion that marked Mingus’ last years seem misguided and unnecessary. The 1977 version of “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat” heard on Passions of a Man, with guitarists Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine showcased, sounds like an exercise in pointless flash. And the orchestral tracks recorded last year for Me, Myself an Eye carry the same feeling. There are two dozen musicians on the 1978 treatment of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” but they don’t come close to generating the excitement created by one-third their number on the original. The song has been leveled out emotionally, and the dynamic range of the 1959 version is completely missing. Throughout the album, much solo room is given to Coryell and the Brecker Brothers, yet trumpeter Randy Brecker is the only fusionist here who plays with consistent invention. Even “Three Worlds of Drums,” the LP’s major composition, sounds overblown and routine when compared with the body of Mingus’ work. The harmonized white noise of Coryell’s guitar solo finds the composer wrestling with amplifier tricks. Whether he should have had to is another matter.
Mingus’ illness didn’t allow him to perform on Me, Myself an Eye, and with the leader on the sidelines, the music rarely gets beyond trying to sound like Mingus. Joni Mitchell’s record, less hung up on aural appearances, seems a more appropriate memorial to the man. None of the three new Mingus tunes has any characteristic twists and turns. Both “A Chair in the Sky” and “Sweet Sucker Dance” offer slightly diffuse ballad lines, while “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” might pass for anyone’s plucky blues (but Mingus would surely have approved of such images as “Midas in a polyester suit”). The supporting instrumentals, filled with soft sound washes and clipped inserts, don’t copy Mingus either. Instead, they reflect, quite appropriately, the performing musicians: Weather Report, with Herbie Hancock in place of Joe Zawinul. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” with Mitchell’s lyrics based on the original solos as well as the melody, retains the Mingus flavor, but the bulk of Mingus could pass for pure Joni Mitchell. I doubt that Charles Mingus would have wanted it any other way.