I entered a jazz program at a small local college without having any sense of the breadth of styles and the personalities that shaped the art form. As a bass player, I felt inclined towards Mingus at first. But the sounds I was hearing (from Mingus) fit none of my preconceived notions of what jazz should sound like. (Ends up that the blue-note hard-bop sound was the sound to my preconceived ears at the time. Thankfully, I quickly dropped those biases.) This sound was huge. The sound was angry and soulful and classic and exploratory. The sound was way out. Just like the man himself.
In 1963, Mingus recorded a number of albums for the Impluse! record label. Each of these three albums is totally unique. Yet each perfectly convey both an individual and overall complete sense of the artist. Recorded that year for Impluse!, we have the huge sound of almost a dozen players playing refined jazz suites on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Following up on that, Mingus gives us Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus as a sort of favorites compilation, where Mingus and his drove of ten+ musicians reinterpret some his best known earlier works. Finally that year, the we’re given intimate Mingus Plays Piano – A solo recording of spontaneous compositions (and typical Mingus banter) where Mingus forgoes the instrument he’s most associated with.
Mingus had a penchant for unconventionally evocative (and lengthy) titles (My favorite being “If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”, but’s for another article). In a shift towards another sort of unconventionalism, each track on Black Saint has three titles, or at least three different ways to reference each individual track:
Track A – Solo Dancer (Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!)
Track B – Duet Solo Dancers (Hearts’ Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces)
Track C – Group Dancers ( (Soul Fusion) Freewoman and Oh, This Freedom’s Slave Cries)
Mode D – Trio and Group Dancers (Stop! Look! And Sing Songs of Revolutions! )
Mode E – Single Solos and Group Dance (Saint and Sinner Join in Merriment on Battle Front)
Mode F – Group and Solo Dance (Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day)
The alphabetical reference is simple enough – There are six separate pieces in the total suite. Mingus presumably differentiated between ‘track’ and ‘mode’, since side two is actually one long 18-minute track. The indication of dancers seems to represent how energetic and/or cacophonous that track is – No matter how cerebral Mingus’s tracks are, they are at the same time always deeply rooted in gospel and soul (Mingus is both a thinking and drinking man’s musician). And the more narrative titles provide a perfect program for the cinematic nature of this recording.
Mingus himself provided the best musicological treatise of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, included as the albums liners notes, abetted by a second set of notes from a contemporary psychoanalyst.
Mingus recognized the potential for this jazz-first partnership with Impulse!, and urged the listener to “throw all other records of mine away”. On his second Impluse! album, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, seven of his previously recorded tunes are reinterpreted, with most gaining a new title. “II B.S.” (previously “Haitian Fight Song”), “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” (title slightly reworked from the original), and “Theme for Lester Young” (Previously “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) are the stand-out tracks here. Of course, Mingus’s unconventionality manifested itself in many ways, and he wasn’t fearful of interjecting a bit of spoken word into what typically was an exclusively instrumental genre:
This mule ain’t from Moscow
This mule ain’t from the South
But this mule has some learnin’
This mule could be called stubborn and lazy
But in a clever sorta’ way this mule could be workin’
Waitin’ and learnin’ and plannin’
For a sacred kind of day
A day when burnin’ sticks and crosses is not mere
But a madman in his most incandescent bloom
Whose lover’s soul is imperfection and is most lustrous
So, stand fast there young mule
Soothe in contemplation
That burning whole and aching thigh
Your stubbornness is ever living
And cool anxiety is about to die
Freedom for your daddy
Freedom for your momma
Freedom for your brothers and sisters
But no freedom for me
Mingus Plays Piano is an intimate and spontaneous perspective into the artist. Mingus had already previously demonstrated his mastery over the instrument, but it becomes that much more apparent when the piano is the singular focus for the entire recording. Harmonically rich, rhythmically cohesive (I hear a lot of stride influence in his playing) and melodically brazen
Mingus’s Implulse! albums were the last studio recordings he’d make in the nineteen-sixties. Perhaps the tedium of getting ripped-off finally got to him (Mingus is alleged to have left a note with a knife through it, stuck into the office chair of an Impulse! studio exec, demanding money he felt owed to him). His most popular word preceeded this period, with recordings he made for both Columbia and Atlantic (both with larger pockets for promotion and distribution). He would return to both of these labels in the seventies, with Changes One and Changes Two being some of the finest albums from his repertoire. However, this trifecta recorded for Impulse! is a pinnacle represented by this partnership – A smaller label, run by a jazz enthusiast, built solely to promote the best of that genre, and one of this century’s genuinely original and gifted geniuses.