Charles Mingus

Thrice Upon a Theme
AIM 1602 CD

Charles Mingus
Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard … Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA
Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside SSC 3041

Three reissued sessions from 1954, 1957 and 1965, by one of Jazz’s most accomplished composers and performers show the apprentice Charles Mingus (1922-1979) literally growing into his persona on Thrice Upon a Theme and the mature Mingus dazzling with sinewy dominance on Music Written for Monterey, 1965.

Still mixing Jazz and so-called classical influences, side one of Thrice… shows the bassist manipulating standards to fit his own world view. Present besides Mingus –

Playing both bass and piano – are trumpeter Thad Jones, who is an unhyphenated Bebopper in his solos; future academic John LaPorta playing clarinet and alto saxophone; future Miles Davis producer Teo Macero playing tenor and baritone saxophones; plus the little-known cellist Jackson Wiley and drummer Clem DeRosa.

Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ long-time rhythm partner is behind the drums for the rest of the discs. But both he and the bassist are in a difficult position on the second session that completes Thrice… merely working as sidemen for Mingus’ West Coast buddy Hampton Hawes, in classic jazz piano trio form on eight mostly standards. Still even in 1957 there are enough individual touches from the bassist (and drummer) to make the session memorable.

Full-blown Mingus appears on Music Written for Monterey... Initially released as a limited edition two-LP set, this musique vérité concert offers, as it promises “Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard...Played Live”. Also included are announcements, pauses, false starts and Mingus speeches alternately ragging and praising the band.

Almost hair-raising in its intensity, the two CDs offer an aural snapshot of a profound Mingus gig. Featured is an eight-piece all-star aggregation of regular band mates such as Richmond, trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, tubaist Howard Johnson and saxophonist Charles McPherson, as well as short-time Mingusians as trumpeters Hobart Dotson and Jimmy Owens plus French hornist Julius Watkins. Throughout the 16 tracks Mingus takes full advantage of the resultant instrumental tone colors available to him.

Weakest of the sessions – at least when dealing with Mingus’ oeuvre – is the trio date with pianist Hawes. Although it includes some Mingus material, the program relies too heavily on overworked ballads such as “Laura” and “Yesterdays”. With Hawes – who admits he was “fixing” during the session – concentrating his playing on ornamental theme variations and metronomic runs, it’s up to the other two to compensate. Richmond tambourine rattles, lays into his snares and toms with paradiddles and double strokes and even trades fours with the pianist. Wedded to the familiar themes as well, Mingus only rarely displays his high string plucks or rhythmic power.

Although successful as a 1957 piano trio date, the instrumentation and arrangements go far to confirm Mingus’ talents elsewhere as an orchestrator and band catalyst.

Three years earlier the common language was also Bebop, but with an unusual – for the time – constituted sextet, the bassist and associates are able to inject original tropes into this Jazz Workshop outing. Polyphonic and polytonal asides from the so-called serious music world share space with Jazz conventions. While the end product isn’t pace-setting like the Mingus sessions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, this is one of the experiments that helped create that later music.

Interesting enough, maturing Mingus was still trying to cram as many influences as possible into a single disc, whether they fit or not. Thus on these tracks you can hear almost undigested lumps of familiar Bop anthems like “Hothouse”, plus Cool School asides, especially from LaPorta’s alto, unfolding cheek-by-jowl with contemporary notated music strategies like scraped internal piano strings and Wiley’s spiccato runs.

Save for drummer DeRosa’s tambourine manipulation, the bassist’s later gospel motifs are missing, yet weaving throughout the six tunes are themes that eventually would become “Haitian Fight Song”, “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and others. Tellingly, Jones, the most assured soloist, is such a committed Bopper that it seems to take all of the bassist’s vaulted walking power – especially on “Spur Of The Moment” – to keep the trumpeter from digging himself further into that groove.

Maceo’s gritty baritone work presages similar low-pitched associations with Mingus by Pepper Adams and others, while LaPorta is most distinctive playing post-Swing Era clarinet. However the resultant light timbres sound a little odd in a Mingus context. “Four Hands” provides the reed man with the sort of saxophone showcase given later Mingus saxmen like Booker Ervin and Jackie McLean, but his Lee Konitz-like tone again appears out of context.

Overall, the most distinctive and longest track –at almost 10½ minutes – is “Minor Intrusions”, featuring the sort of polyphonic unison string and horn parts Mingus would use many times afterwards. Although Wiley’s solo appears to be completely notated, tambourine accents behind it confirm its originality; as do the walking bass parts beneath LaPorta’s alto breaks. Contrapuntal entries from Jones and Maceo break up the melodic variations, while irregular percussive scrapes and pats defining the finale.

Mingus fully formed is on display on Music Written for Monterey… with his arrangements, compositions, vocalizations and recitations as prominent as his playing. Hectoring, encouraging and accompanying the other musicians, Mingus creates notable versions of some of his best compositions here, also making space for unexpected role playing. There’s an actorly Hillyer-McPherson quartet feature, “Ode to Bird and Dizzy”, a theatrical, call-and-response number that alternates staccatissimo and andante time, with each instrumentalist assuming his designated role, quoting “Salt Peanut” and “Hothouse”. The whole band even takes time out for a sardonic run-through of the Dixieland classic “Muskrat Ramble”, written by trombonist Kid Ory, an early Mingus employer.

Highpoint of the concert however lies in new versions of classic Mingus compositions, with a couple giving prominence to soloists who were not often in his bands. “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too” and “The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster”, for instance are a showcase for Dotson’s brassy lead trumpet and willowy brassy lines. While the burbling underscore, floats on modulated tuba and French horn timbres speeds up and slows down at will during both numbers, the trumpeter sticks to standard flourishes and emphasizes chromatic notes.

The theatrical recitation from Mingus that frames “Don’t Let It Happen Here” is given a gospelish frame with triple time pedal point. In between its extremities sped up by strumming bass lines, Owens shapes a tongue-fluttering, tremolo flugelhorn solo.

Alternately percussive and ornamental Mingus’ pianism is as upfront as his bass playing throughout. While there are times he overemphasizes the tremor that can be produced when the keys are smashed full force to change tempo, sometimes the phrases that peer through the horn call-and-response appear to be allied as closely to Horowitz as Tatum.

Utilizing the burnished mellowness of Watkins’ French horn and McPherson’s ability to produce creamy textures the band also presents a definitive, almost 19-minute reading of “Meditation On Inner Peace”. Centred around Mingus’ favored broken octave invention, the tune layers contrapuntal vamps from other horns on top of Johnson’s pedal-point processional lowing and Watkins’ cello-like textures. Both legato and zart the composition makes ample use of McPherson’s resonating tone sluices until pitch-sliding tremolos from the bassist let the theme swell and briefly pause with the conclusion illuminated by slurry trumpet echoes and bounces, flams and ruffs from Richmond.

A genuine rediscovery, Music Written for Monterey provides a matchless look at the mature Mingus and offers some exceptional music as well. While not essential, Thrice Upon a Theme provides examples of how the man reached his elevated status.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Music: Disc One: 1. Opening Speech 2. Meditation On Inner Peace 3. Speech 4. Meditation On Inner Peace 5. Speech 6. Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Corporation Called America (false start) 7. Lecture To Band 8. Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Corporation Called America 9. Ode To Bird And Dizzy 10. Speech 11. They Trespass The Land Of The Sacred Sioux Disc Two: 1. The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster 2. Speech 3.Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Corporation Called America 4. Speech 5. Muskrat Ramble 6. Pause 7. Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too 8. Don’t Let It Happen Here

Personnel: Music: Hobart Dotson and Lonnie Hillyer (trumpets); Jimmy Owens (trumpet and flugelhorn); Julius Watkins (French horn); Howard Johnson (tuba); Charles McPherson (alto saxophone); Charles Mingus (piano, bass and recitation) and Dannie Richmond (drums)

Track Listing: CD1: 1. What Is This Thing Called Love 2. Minor Intrusions 3. Spur Of The Moment 4. Thrice Upon A Theme 5. Four Hands 6. Stormy Weather CD2*: 1. Laura 2. Hamp’s Blues 3. Summertime 4. Dizzy Moods 5. Yesterdays 6. Back Home Blues 7.I Can’t Get Started

Personnel: Thrice: Thad Jones (trumpet); John LaPorta (alto saxophone); Teo Macero (tenor and baritone saxophones); Hampton Hawes* (piano); Jackson Wiley (cello) Charles Mingus (piano and bass) and Clem DeRosa or Dannie Richmond* (drums)