Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy
#4 Boxed Set/Live Album/Music DVD for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun September 9, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Cornell 1964, a newly discovered live set by legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus, is an uneasy work of genius. Soothing and melodic one minute, busy and aggressive the next, the collection is not an easy ride. Nevertheless, although it traverses some very challenging terrain, stalwart listeners who make it to the end of its second disc will be glad that they persevered.
Mingus, of course, occupies a place at the pinnacle of the jazz pantheon. Along with giants like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, Mingus did much to redefine the landscape of jazz during the latter half of the 20th century. Using his bass as a teaser and conductor’s baton — in much the same way as the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh wields his instrument — Mingus doesn’t play bass lines so much as he throws out musical suggestions with which his sidemen can wrestle. Depending on intuition and trust, he sometimes offers a phrase and sometimes an entire melody line before switching tacks and diving into completely new keys and ideas. Clearly, those who accepted a seat in Mingus’ band could not afford to be asleep at the wheel, and the group that assembled at New York’s Cornell University in the spring of 1964 clearly was equal to any challenges that its leader had up his sleeve.
Music that exists exclusively as a platform for virtuosity has, at best, a limited appeal. (The fusion disasters, which sprang up in the 1970s and almost ruined jazz, are enduring testaments to this). Charles Mingus had too much sense, and his love of melody was too deeply ingrained for him to fall prey to this type of self-indulgence. Though many of his compositions are devilishly difficult to play and appreciate, there is, embedded in each of his pieces, a melody line that dances lyrically throughout its performance. His ability to be complex and tuneful at the same time demonstrates a mastery of form that few artists have ever reached or, much less, managed to sustain over the course of a career.
Recently discovered by Sue Mingus, Charles’ widow, Cornell 1964 is one of the best, previously unreleased, classic jazz sets of the year. Not only does the recording shed new light on Mingus’ artistic development, but it also is as important a collection as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane’s long lost At Carnegie Hall, which finally was unveiled in 2005. Cornell 1964 boasts the same lineup as was featured on Mingus’ Town Hall Concert, which was recorded later in the tour, and astute listeners will be able to appreciate the embryonic performances of Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk and Meditations, both of which sound significantly different from the standard versions.
The musicians throughout Cornell 1964 are singularly outstanding. From the outset, with a pounding version of ATFW You — a tribute to jazz greats Art Tatum and Fats Waller — pianist Jaki Byard takes no prisoners. Then, Mingus dives into a solo rendition of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady that leaves no doubt about his chops. In the wake of such elegance, Mingus shakes up the audience with a half-hour version of Fables of Faubus, a journey through America’s history of racism and segregation that endures as one of his most popular "jazz protest pieces." This song provided all of the band members with room to stretch out, and it prepared the audience for legendary clarinetist Eric Dolphy’s often frantic sonic attacks.
Lovers of traditional jazz need not despair completely when considering whether or not to purchase Cornell 1964. Perhaps sensing that even the most adventurous sets of ears require a brief respite, Mingus concluded his first set with a bouncing rendition of Take the "A" Train, and he rounded out the concert with a delightful romp through Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Jump. In doing so, he balanced familiarity with his otherwise primordial sonic soup. In between, there are passages of indescribable beauty — especially in the slower sections of Meditations and Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk — and enough experimental squonk and grind to satisfy the most off-kilter fans of Captain Beefheart and Ornette Coleman.
No one likes to be told to listen to an album because it’s good for them. Most people enjoy Mozart better than Bartok, and it’s easy to understand why. The appreciation of art is not supposed to be an endurance test, and to the uninitiated, the recordings of Charles Mingus can require a lot of work. Nevertheless, Cornell 1964 is an outstanding two-disc collection that not only offers a wealth of surprises but also initiates enough intellectual ideas to occupy the most discerning fans of improvised music for years to come. Given time and patience, Cornell 1964 may be just the right thing to kick-start one’s ears out of a rut, and it’s certain to open new worlds of pleasure to the hearts and minds of followers and newcomers alike. Simply put, Cornell 1964 is an essential endeavor that comes highly recommended.
Cornell 1964 is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box