Mingus Ah Um / Mingus Dynasty
[50th Anniversary Legacy Edition]
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2010, Volume 17, #3
Written by John Metzger
Thu March 11, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
There is no doubt that 1959 was a phenomenal year as well as a pivotal moment in jazz history. Just as the music was beginning to sound formulaic, an array of up-and-coming artists began to breathe new life into the tired genre: Tito Puente continued to ride upon the Latin grooves of his breakthrough endeavor Dance Mania. Ornette Coleman tossed his inhibitions aside on The Shape of Jazz to Come. Miles Davis explored moody atmospheres on Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. Dave Brubeck brilliantly reshuffled the rhythmic deck with Time Out. Each of these outings not only was a game-changing effort but also has stood the test of time to rank among the greatest and most influential albums ever made.
Amidst this onslaught of brilliance, Charles Mingus unveiled Mingus Ah Um, his debut for Columbia. The outing propelled Mingus into the limelight of the jazz scene. Yet, given the stiff competition in 1959, itís not surprising that, five decades later, the effort frequently falls by the wayside. For certain, Mingus Ah Um is a solidly constructed affair with many magnificent moments, and if it had been issued a few years either earlier or later, it might not remain so overshadowed by the albums that surrounded it.
Then again, Mingus has never really gotten the respect that he has deserved, largely because his best albums are so complex, challenging, and difficult to embrace that Mingus Ah Um has become the card to play whenever his profile needs a boost. The bassistís avid supporters routinely refer to the effort as an equally worthy entrant to the pantheon of milestones that were reached in 1959. The problem, however, is that while rallying to their heroís defense, they always overlook the fact that Mingus Ah Um just canít compete against the works of Davis, Brubeck, and Coleman.
For certain, Mingus Ah Um is one of the most variegated efforts to emerge from Mingusí brain. With its wailing horns and gospel hollers, Better Git It in Your Soul is steeped in New Orleansí tradition. It is a writhing mass of infectious joy, and its rhythmic juxtapositions ponder concepts that share traits with Brubeckís Time Out, albeit in a fashion that is more urban and gritty. Fables of Faubus, which truly blossomed in Mingusí later performances, begins as a playful strut, but its shifting textures uncomfortably tug with tidal force against the melody. Elsewhere, Mingus briskly leads his outfit through the turbulence of Bird Calls and casts soft ripples across the mournful currents of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.
Still, it is difficult to deny the fact that Mingus Ah Um clearly is a transitional affair, one that bridges the gap between the Duke Ellington-inspired arrangements that Mingus employed during the 1950s and the structured disorder of his output during the subsequent decade. Even the personnel that Mingus utilized is a hybrid of these eras. As for the songs, they often jump from one place to the next, awkwardly providing glimpses of the future as well as connections to the past. In terms of the compositions it contains and how it presents them, Mingus Ah Um provides a relatively easy point of access to the bassistís work, which likely explains why Mingusí fans so quickly cite it in their attempts to broaden his reach.
By the same token, however, Mingus Ah Um also lacks a common denominator that can pull together all of the ideas and thoughts that Mingus explores on the set. In other words, Mingus Ah Um is not really a cohesive tapestry, but rather it is a series of cloths waiting to be sewn into place. The songs on the outing offer possibilities as well as insight. Yet, it took Mingus several more years of recordings and concert performances to bring his vision to fruition.
Less than six months after the final recording session for Mingus Ah Um, Mingus returned to the studio to begin working on Mingus Dynasty, his sophomore set for Columbia. With only small alterations to his supporting cast, the results not surprisingly were essentially the same. Mingus even attempted to follow a similar blueprint. The set not only opened with another gospel-inspired song (Slop), but lacking in new material, Mingus completed the collection by tackling a pair of Ellington-penned tunes (Things Ainít What They Used to Be and Mood Indigo). The individual tracks on Mingus Dynasty are all emotionally potent and precisely rendered, but the way in which they were strung together feels forced to the point where the album sounds less coherent than its predecessor.
When they were released on LP in 1959, several of the tracks on Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty were edited for space. The two-disc Legacy Edition, which unites the endeavors, restores the songs to their full-lengths, while also adding several alternate versions as well as a handful of other cuts that were culled from the same sessions. Without question, the material on Mingus Ah Um forms the highpoint of the collection. Although he would further refine, evolve, and expand his approach, the illumination that the album and all of its assorted odds and ends provide ultimately proves to be invaluable to comprehending Mingusí oft-overlooked and remarkably rewarding output.
Of Further Interest...
Mingus Ah Um / Mingus Dynasty: Legacy Edition is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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