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Friday, October 20, 2006

Reincarnation of a Concert: Mingus at UCLA, 1965

Since Charles Mingus's passing in 1979, his prolific musical legacy has remained vital not only because of his compositions themselves but also because of the efforts of his widow, Sue Mingus, who directs bands to present his wildly varied repertoire (the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Orchestra and the Epitaph Orchestra). The newest release bearing his name, however, is not from any of these bands but Mingus himself: a previously unreleased octet performance at UCLA's Royce Hall in 1965. Some of this music was heard before at the Monterey Jazz Festival earlier that year, but their set there was shortened. The music got a complete reading at the UCLA concert, which was presented in more of as a Mingus "workshop," and was recorded but pressed on only a handful of records for a lucky and passionate few.

This concert was not originally intended to be in a workshop format, but material this demanding is complemented by the rather informal setting. You can hear Mingus address the audience, egg the band on during the music as well as between songs including several reprimands for missed cues or, as he says here, "mental tardiness." The band is not entirely at fault, though. In the album, Fred Cohen (an owner of the original vinyl from which the performance was transferred) and Sue Mingus write about the bandleader's method of giving his players the music:
"We spent two weeks at Mingus's apartment working on those new songs," trumpet player Jimmy Owens remembers. "Although every day we would come to rehearsal, Mingus wouldn't let us write anything down. He'd sit down at the piano and say, 'Play this,' and we'd learn the parts and put it together. And then the next day he'd change it all around from the day before. He'd get new ideas. It made things very difficult." Saxophonist Charles McPherson, who was unable to make any of the rehearsals, actually learned his parts over the telephone, Mingus at one end singing the part and McPherson at the other end picking it out on his horn.
The band having been under-rehearsed is certainly part of the recording's charm and mystique, but Mingus's writing also has a rawness built into it. Both elements are evident in the performance.

The concert's opening is somewhat deceptive; none of the other pieces match the sparse, funereal pall that opens the eighteen-minute "Meditation on Inner Peace." The bass and horns thread some gracefully simple melodies through Howard Johnson's doleful single-note tuba ostinato. Jimmy Owens's full flugelhorn contrasts well with Mingus's eerie arco melodies. (I can't help but think of Sketches of Spain when hearing the first few minutes when the horn enters.) Charles McPherson gives a wrenching, lacrimose solo here. He also weaves some taut lines on "Ode to Bird and Dizzy" without being an imitator, and trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer gives some brash high-register statements. Drummer Dannie Richmond drives the group hard as Mingus keeps churning from underneath. The hornmen encapsulate the spirit of the tribute with some humorously oblique snippets of "Salt Peanuts" and "Ko-Ko" near the end of the tune. The first disc closes with Owens featured on "They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux," but the piece really hits its stride during McPherson's solo over Mingus's percussive, bluesy piano.

The band sounds more refreshed for the second half of the performance. The second disc opens with "The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster," a strong feature for trumpeter Hobart Dotson, whose tone is brilliant like a fanfare but with a strong vocal quality. French horn player Julius Watkins shines in the foreground for the first few minutes of "Once Upon a Time, There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America" (which appeared later under the more familiar title, "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers"). The ensemble drags a bit in parts, but the chords themselves lend the tune a sunny kind of levity. Mingus's piano touch ranges from lush to wild; he is especially playful in dialogue with a bright and joyous Hillyer. These two pieces are the high points of the concert. "Don't Let It Happen Here" is a staple of the Mingus Big Band these days, so some may already be familiar with this one. Owens's pure-toned cry invoking an air-raid siren is fitting and his solo builds from a simple few notes in constantly morphing rhythms.

Very few copies of this album existed for some unfortunate reasons: Mingus's financial hardships (he released the records on his own label) and Capitol Records's housecleaning (they destroyed the masters). Perhaps the latter happened because the performance was not "studio quality." No matter for Mingus fanatics, though -- accepting the music's flaws is an essential part of understanding it.

Buy Charles Mingus: At UCLA 1965.

Read a 1984 NY Times article by Jon Pareles on the performance.


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