Charles Mingus: Music Written for Monterey 1965 Not Heard … Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA(SSC 3041)
Mingus Big Band: Live in Tokyo at the Blue Note, 2005 (SSC 3042)
Release Date: 9/26/06
Charles Mingus lives! Although the late composer and bassist passed in 1979, as we approach his 85th birthday year, the complex, passionate, and supremely personal compositional work lives on through the frequent performances and recordings of the bands his widow Sue Mingus has assembled – the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Orchestra, and the Epitaph Orchestra – and through upcoming releases of landmark Charles Mingus performances, available for the first time on CD. Two live recordings, Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard…Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA and Live in Tokyo at the Blue Note, 2005 will be released simultaneously Sept. 26 on Sue Mingus Music, distributed by Sunnyside.
One documents the jazz giant in 1965; the other documents the big band that bears his name, forty years later. But more than mere historical documents, both provide a rare glimpse into the creative process of the maestro and composer, and the musicians that live and breathe new life into his music today. Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard…Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA captures Mingus leading an octet performing at the University of California, Los Angeles. To expand the story of the title: Mingus had triumphantly performed at Monterey Jazz Festival in 1964, and returned the following year with a collection of difficult new material that he intended to debut there. However, Mingus’ set was truncated to a half an hour, and most of the set list was scrapped. A week later he premiered and recorded the material at UCLA, which demonstrates in raw, you-are-there detail why Mingus liked to refer to his live shows as workshops, where he could continue to rehearse new material (not written down for the other musicians) until he was satisfied with the spirit and sound. That this “workshop” concert was also recorded opens a window on Mingus’ creative process, and the listener is privy to the inner workings of the composer, his outward shouts and reprimands.
It is an unvarnished behind-the-scenes look at the struggle Charles Mingus sometimes faced in his efforts to get his demanding compositions performed. It includes musical confrontations on stage, the difficulties band members experienced with brand new music, his own furies and, ultimately, his refusal to edit out the warts, to tell it like it was. This fearless exposure of the creative process in all its contradictions had led earlier to his concept of the jazz workshops- performances on stage in which the trials and errors of creating music were presented to viewers, unedited. He also understood the fascination with “process” for an intelligent audience. “All these years I’ve been trying to promote Mingus the composer, and downplaying Charles the larger-than-life character,” Sue laughs. “By putting this CD out, here I am playing right into that image of Charles. But what eventually transpires after the musical fist fights, extraordinary solos, hirings and firings and a feast of new composition – is musicians achieving incredible musical heights as they resolve their conflicts in the fire of the music.”
Released by Mingus’ own label forty years ago, Mingus pressed only 200 copies before he ran out of money, and then the masters were destroyed in 1971 when Capitol cleaned out its vaults. This two-disc CD was re-mastered from the original vinyl. (Sue Mingus and Fred Cohen also issued a limited edition version of the LP in 1984.) In the liner notes to At UCLA Sue writes, “It should be obvious that no established record company at that time or any other would have released a recording with so much dissension and so many irregularities. Mingus opted for the truth of the performance, and we witness not only the flaws and failures but the sheer joy as he shrieks his approval, encourages his drummer, exhorts his trumpet player and jumps from the piano chair to the bass and back in order to conduct his compositions.”
Mingus’s band included trumpeters Hobart Dotson, Lonnie Hillyer and Jimmy Owens; alto saxophonist Charles McPherson; French horn player Julius Watkins, tuba player Howard Johnson; drummer Dannie Richmond; and Mingus on bass. Tunes included “Meditation on Inner Peace,” “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too,” and “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America” (a later version was titled “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-ass Slippers”), and a rare opportunity to hear Mingus perform on otherwise unavailable compositions “They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux,” “Don’t Let It Happen Here,” and “The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster,” and arrangements of “Muscrat Ramble” and a be-bop medley, “Ode to Bird and Dizzy.”
Jon Pareles in the New York Times wrote about the “irrepressible” UCLA concert, and how Mingus, through his workshop format, was “eager to remind his audiences that jazz is simultaneously a body of tradition and an art of the moment.” Four decades later, this recording still sounds as modern as the Mingus Big Band Live at Tokyo, which spans generations of Mingus compositions and still manages to combine the unique personalities of the performers and art of the moment with the timelessness of these compositions. Live in Tokyo at the Blue Note, 2005 showcases the exhilarating Mingus Big Band launching into newly arranged compositions from the Mingus songbook at a New Year’s Eve concert at the Blue Note. Continuing the Mingus tradition of great difficulty yielding great rewards, the last-minute replacement of new father and bassist Boris Koslov (who was to debut two new arrangements) with Kenny Davis (who had never played with the band, and who stepped in seamlessly), is testament not only to the musicians’ talents, but to the strength of the music itself.
The 14-piece big band – comprising trumpeters Eddie Henderson, Jack Walrath and Alex Sipiagin; saxophonists Abraham Burton, Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Seamus Blake, and Ronnie Cuber; trombonists Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; pianist Dave Kikoski; bassist Kenny Davis; and drummer Johnathan Blake – buoyantly give new voice to such Mingus classics as “Meditations” and “Ecclusiastics,” from the ’60s, “Opus 4” and “Free Cell Block 8” from the early ’70s, and such early ’50s-era tunes as “Celia,” “Bird Calls” and “Wham Bam,” which opens the CD with characteristic Mingus Big Band explosive energy. When talking about the legacy band’s weekly New York club dates, Sue commented that her husband would have “given his eye teeth to compose for musicians of this caliber week after week, though he rarely had the opportunity to work with such a large group.”
But through the posthumous Epitaph concerts (in the 80s and coming again in 2007), and through Mingus’s enormous compositional legacy, today’s musicians have the opportunity to continue his creative process and, through these recordings, listeners have a privileged entry to the dialogue. Mingus may not be shouting from the bandstand or dismissing them for “mental tardiness” but his music continues to inspire musicians to heights of individual artistry through the power and longevity of his compositions and the lively creative conversation evidenced in these two most recent releases.