Monday, May 26, 2008

Charles Mingus – Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus

I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about jazz. I mean, I don’t understand the difference between progressive jazz and improvisational jazz. And I’ll admit, I will have a difficult time telling the difference between artists such as the great Charlie Parker and a lesser known entity as Dexter Gordon. I don’t know what makes good jazz and bad jazz, I just know what sounds good to my ears. What I also know is, music that makes me move on an emotional level, as well as a physical level, is worthy of discussion. With this review, don’t expect an intellectual discussion on the genre, or the musicians. This is simply my take on a jazz album that encompasses everything that I love about the music. A great composition, a great performance, and to me, a great story.

Widely known as being one of the greatest jazz artists for his skill in composition, Charles Mingus brought something to my ears that few of the household jazz names have. The power of the groove. Mingus’ 1963 release Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus is brimming with so much soulful groove and jazz attitude that I can’t help but bounce up and down in my chair. But, don’t think that this is just one bepop track after the next, Mingus also mixes the laid back ballad sounds of someone like Tommy Dorsey to show that he has a softer side as well. Throw Mingus x5 on and prepare to be transported to the late ‘20’s, early ‘30’s American big city where a night at the jazz club wasn’t just a night of entertainment, but an escape from the all too real world of social class struggles.

The opening track, “II B.S.,” gives us a glimpse of Mingus’ bass playing soul as the song kicks off. Just as we’re settling in, the rest of the band joins in with the groove and viola! We’re streaking down the mean streets of Chicago, holding onto the door posts of an old model T, headin’ out for a night at the club. And man, we’re dressed to kill! The bass and drums hold the rhythm together as the saxophones go off, sweeping us from the running boards to the floor boards of the dance floor. This tune has all of the imagery of the seedy nightlife of the speakeasy’s during the prohibition era. As the tune comes to an end, the dance floor revelers collapse in their chairs to cool off and, surreptitiously, grab another drink.

For the stronger, more seasoned club goers, “I X Love” keeps them on the floor, but closer than before. Punctuated by the melody of the saxophones, one can easily picture two lovers, nose to nose, beads of sweat beginning to develop on their skin, swaying on the dance floor. It has the steamy sensuality of the bad boy trying to be good, and the good girl trying to not be bad. I’m not sure if Charles Mingus had intended to capture this type of imagery, but as we all know, music is very subjective and this is what I see.

“Celia” highlights Mingus’ aforementioned prowess at composition, opening the tune where “I X Love” left off, and then busting into a great rhythmic groove. Saxophone and trumpet accents interjected to add extra color, the drums pounding away and dictating the pace, all before dropping to another mellowed out passage. If Mingus x5 were a movie, “Celia” would be the portion where we’re introduced to the lady of the same name, and given a glimpse of her life away from the bad boy from the steamy club. Throughout the tune, the moods shift from those of a young lady full of dreams to those of one desperate for a better life.

“Mood Indigo,” written by Duke Ellington and Barney Bigard, is a real laid back and romantic piece. Mingus’ bass work, in conjunction with the drums, lulls the listener to a level of complacency before he shows off a few of his bass playing chops at the 1:18 mark. How this song works in the context of the story, like most of the music, is open to interpretation. Celia and the bad boy are having a lovers interlude? Sure. Works for me.

Mingus and band return to an up tempo groove with “Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul,” and the melody on this one is striking. This is a feel good tune that will get you up and moving. The rhythm provided by the horn section has a harder edge than much of the rest of the album, but that roughness is countered by a smoothed out melody line. The break where the band claps the rhythm at the 2:10 mark is a great touch, and is followed up with a knock out drum break at the 3:37 mark. And, just when you think that the song is over, they break into a whole new groove at the 4:55 mark. Awesome! These little nuances keep music, not just jazz, interesting and they’re the stuff I, personally, look forward to.

“Theme For Lester Young” opens with another memorable and soulful sax line. Me thinks, with this tune, Lester Young is the bad boy from earlier club scene, and we’re just getting the character breakdown on this chap. Heartfelt and emotional, one can’t help but be moved by the plight of the young man torn between fitting in with his gang and the love he feels for the beautiful and alluring Celia.

“Hora Decubitus” pretty much closes out the “story” portion of the album. At least, the way I’m interpreting things. The tune is a mover and provides a monumental amount of bounce through the bass, drums, sax, trumpet . . . name it. This tune comes as the climax of the story. Lester has either come into conflict with the forces keeping him from Celia, or the two of them are in such exuberance about being together that the music is pushing the couple across the dance floor. Such a brilliant tune and Mingus shows us why he’s so revered for his compositions and performances.

In true closer fashion, “Freedom” puts an exclamation on Mingus x5. It’s a fantastic social commentary on human rights, and it should be noted that Mingus isn’t calling out solely for the freedom for the black’s of America, but freedom for all people world wide. And still, maybe this song can be interpreted as the closing track to the saga of Lester and Celia. Here’s a young black couple searching for freedom in America circa 1930. After all, at the time of this recording, a black man in America wasn’t even allowed to use a restroom with a white man, let alone cast a vote.

Sorry, to be so long winded, but I felt compelled to share my feelings on this one. It kind of took me by surprise, as I didn’t sit down and listen to Mingus x5 with the intention of reviewing it. I was expecting to sit back and chill for a bit, not fall totally in love with an album that’s been randomly rotating on my iPod for two years. If you do go out and pick up this album, or already have it, please give it a listen and let me know what you think. I’ve very interested in others interpretations of this great man’s work. - Pope JTE

Buy here: Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus


C-had said...

Thanks for the review. I have been wondering if Mingus would be worth the listen or if would be like other jazz artists I have tried to get into, which is usually $15-$25 I would never see again. I will have to check this out!

The Mad Hatter said...

You can't go wrong with Mingus. I love The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, and Mingus Ah Um as well. Truly remarkable stuff, even for the non-jazz fan.

rockandrollguru said...

Love favorite has always been Mingus Moves.

rockandrollguru said...

Love favorite has always been Mingus Moves.

Woody said...

Mingus' Impulse stuff is incredible. I even love his solo piano record. When I have the time to just sit around, get baked and listen to music (which, sadly, doesn't happen that often) I love to listen to this album or Black Saint. It's truly 3 dimensional psychedelic music.

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