Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2208
Blues- and Gospel-Rooted Jazz Brilliance Sparks with Diversity, Personality, and Individualism: Mastered from the Original Master Tapes and Strictly Limited to 3,000 Numbered Copies
"Better Git It in Your Soul" not only serves as the name of the inviting, holler-appointed opening track of Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um. It epitomizes the spirit, urgency, freedom, and feel-it-in-your-bones passion of an album that – along with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and John Coltrane's Giant Steps – forms the Mount Rushmore of quintessential records from 1959-1960, jazz's watershed graduating class. Indeed, Mingus Ah Um is cited on practically every "greatest" list assembled and enjoys the rare distinction of wearing a prestigious crown in the Penguin Guide to Jazz and membership in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Now, it receives the sonic treatment on disc that it's always deserved.
Strictly limited to 3,000 numbered copies, Mobile Fidelity's hybrid SACD of Mingus Ah Um pops with contagious vibrancy, command, energy, and scale. The bassist's church-music roots spring to life in the form of blues themes, moaned vocals, spiritual motifs, and preacher-inspired riffs that register with hyper-realistic dimensionality and natural intimacy. Experienced as a seamless whole – just as the cigar-chomping composer intended – the band enters your listening room, its intertwined assembly of notes, phrases, pauses, shapes, and solos yielding something more music.
And clearly, Mingus ardently honored and prized even every seemingly non-musical aspect on his Columbia Records debut. Witness the unforgettable cover art, a painting by S. Neil Fujita, whose varied hues, abstract geometries, free-base forms, and ornate albeit clean presentation mirrors the seemingly impossible blend of accessibility, complexity, experimentalism, consistency, focus, individualism, and collectivity reflected in every passage of the incredibly diverse album. Or, simply look at the reverence Mingus displays for his ancestors – and their contributions to jazz's ongoing conversation and cultural relevance – via "Jelly Roll" (for Jelly Roll Morton), "Open Letter to Duke" (for Duke Ellington), and the hallmark ballad "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (an homage to Lester Young).
Above all, however, Mingus Ah Um stands as an exuberant tribute to the idea (and blueprint-caliber execution) of fully realized musical frameworks serving as launching pads for expressive interactions, responses, exchanges, and improvisations. At the core, personality, character, invention, and, color remain paramount. Mingus Ah Um acts as an aural representation of a philosophy the artist espoused before and after the recording sessions. In the liner notes to the record's follow-up, and penned shortly after the recording of Mingus Ah Um, he spoke of striving for "primitive, mystic, supra-mind communication" and avoiding the repetition, boredom, apathy, and cliché associated with falling into set patterns and mimicking the approach of recognized giants. In other words, he demanded each member of his band "play himself."
Nothing could be truer when you hear in such vivid detail the work of saxophonists John Handy, Shafi Hadi, and Booker Ervin, trombonists Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper, pianist Horace Parlan, drummer Dannie Richmond, and the genius bass playing of Mingus himself. The collective's technical acumen – be it multi-tone row scales, pedal point rhythmic patterns, traditional chords, melodic moods, harmonic lines, beginning/ending-blurring context, high registers, major and minor thirds (and absence thereof), pivot-point chromatics, diatonic manners, open fifths, and more – lingers not only in the mind, but invigorates the senses.
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Review by Mark Werlin - July 27, 2019
Charles Mingus struggled for decades to establish a career of his own design, an ambition that was frustrated by the narrow categories imposed by the music business, and sabotaged by his own demons of rage and self-doubt. In a more perfect world, a musician of his accomplishments at the peak of his creative powers would not have been compelled to beg his ex-wife and her husband to provide a monthly stipend to pay the rent. If Mingus had been the kind of person who could form as close a relationship with a record company as to his ex, he might not have needed to ask.
When Mingus was offered the possibility of financial stability — a circumstance few American jazz musicians of his generation would ever experience — he created two classic albums of original compositions for Columbia Records, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. But his uncontrolled rage, misplaced paranoia and unrealistic expectations guaranteed that a career-changing contract would not be renewed.
The May 5 and May 12, 1959 Mingus Ah Um sessions were done in collaboration with producer Teo Macero, who had participated with Mingus in the Jazz Composers Workshop a few years earlier. Macero was in an influential position to steer the album through preparation, recording, editing, and release. Of the nine originally released pieces, five were edited to remove sections or solos with which Mingus was dissatisfied. Even though nearly all the participating musicians had played and recorded previously with Mingus, his unwillingness to prepare charts sufficiently in advance of recording sessions, and his preference that the players learn the pieces by ear, inevitably resulted in recorded takes that failed to meet his high standards.
Unedited takes and unreleased tracks from the Ah Um sessions were issued by Columbia in 1979 on the two-LP set "Nostalgia in Times Square", and the most recent digital releases have been of the unedited takes, including the 2009 Michael Cuscuna/Mark Wilder two-CD Sony Legacy set "Mingus Ah Um" (which includes Mingus Dynasty"), and the 1999 US Sony single-layer SACD.
My own collection includes the 1971 Columbia two-LP set "Better Get It in Your Soul", a compilation of original edited versions of Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, "Nostalgia in Times Square, the 1995 Classic Records single LP (original version of Mingus Ah Um) and the Sony Legacy two-CD set. I've been listening to this music for decades, and have long believed that Bernie Grundman's mastering for Classic Records was the best representation of Mingus' approved version of the album.
That once-firm conviction can now be tossed into the dust heap of discarded judgments.
In preparation for this review, I switched between the MoFi SACD and the Classic Records LP, which was also sourced from Mingus and Macero's edited masters. My expectations, conditioned by the sound of the Columbia and Classic Records LPs, and colored by memories of hearing Mingus at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, fell away in the first chorus of "Better Get It in Your Soul". On first listening: the tape has been well preserved, and Shawn Britton's transfer, while different in emphasis from Grundman's, is just as convincing a representation of the musicians in the studio. On deeper listening: the individual timbres of Booker Ervin, John Handy and Shafi Hadi, gained through long hours of practice and longer nights on the stand, are distinct and recognizable; you don't just hear what they're playing, you feel the sound they perfected. The brass section on Ah Um was limited to a single trombone, either Jimmy Knepper or Willie Dennis, but the skill of the session engineer, and the care with which producer Macero positioned the instruments in relation to Mingus' complex arrangements, creates an illusion of a larger ensemble that the SACD successfully conveys.
The tape editing process gave Mingus final say over the content of the musical presentation. Shafi Hadi's alto solo in "Boogie Stop Shuffle", which was marred by an unconfident ending, was completely excised, but the ruthlessness of the cut is justified by the unstoppable momentum of the performance and the shift in emphasis to Danny Richmond's drum break. Richmond's precise technique and subtle musicality are astonishing when you consider that he had only begun playing the drums professionally a few years earlier.
Mingus Ah Um is often characterized as a tribute to past musical masters, which the titles suggest in references to Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Although Mingus was concerned about preserving and building on the accomplishments of his predecessors, he also remarked: "If Bird were to come back to life, I wouldn't do something just because he did it" (quoted in Brian Priestley's "Mingus: A Critical Biography", from an interview with Nat Hentoff). The pieces on Ah Um function more as movements of a longer composition than as individual tracks on a conventional jazz album. It's a different kind of experience to listen to Ah Um in its entirety, as the SACD encourages, than to sample it on a streaming service, as many listeners who are hearing the music for the first time are now doing. I would challenge any serious jazz lover to put the MoFi SACD in the tray, press Play and NOT listen to the album straight through.
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", Mingus' eulogy for the recently-deceased tenor saxophonist Lester Young, has been recorded and reinterpreted many times since its initial appearance on Ah Um, but few subsequent interpretations recapture the intensity of the original. Anecdotal accounts of the piece's origin report that during a Mingus quintet performance at the Half Note in March 1959, someone came up to the stand and whispered to Charles that Prez had just died. By the time the band was finished playing, the song was beginning to form. In the fragility of John Handy's flutter-tongue passages, you can almost sense the delicate veil that divides life and death.
"Fables of Faubus", with its sardonic undercurrent, disruptive stop-and-start rhythms, and menacing minor-key resolution, carries a message of anger and scorn at politicians whose blindness to the humanity of African-Americans fostered apartheid racial segregation and provoked reactionary violence during the historic struggle for civil rights. Columbia Records feared a backlash against all of their products if the song included its original chanted lyrics; the executives must have had good reason to believe that record and department stores in the South would refuse to carry the album and other Columbia titles. Those lyrics can be heard in the version retitled "Original Faubus Fables" recorded for Nat Hentoff's independent Candid label in 1960 and released on "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus". When I saw Mingus in 1975, "Fables of Faubus" was still in the band's book. The message remains as timely in 2019 as it was in 1959.
The toxic legacy of white supremacy that gave rise to "Fables" seared Mingus' psyche at an early age. Mingus' father had been rejected by his own mother, a Swedish-American woman who'd transgressed social boundaries by loving a black man, and ultimately was forced to expel their child. Though Mingus Sr. held himself and his children superior to their black neighbors, young Charles was raised by his stepmother to be steeped in the music and religious expression of the black church. Mingus Ah Um encapsulates that conflict; earthy tunes that harken to his childhood experience of gospel services, and cerebral compositions that reflect his thwarted aspiration to write authentically American new classical music.
In his complex ethnic ancestry, combative relationships with wives, family, audiences, critics, record company executives, and even the musicians he most depended on for the realization of his work, Charles Mingus embodied the unresolvable questions of personal, racial, and artistic identity.
Copyright © 2019 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net