Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Unquiet Genius

The Mingus legacy won't be boxed in.

By Jon Garelick

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  True to the form of Charles Mingus (1922-'79), the new Rhino collection Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-'61 is sprawling, ungainly, massive. It's not that it's especially large as boxed sets go, but its six CDs are all over the place. There are concert and studio sessions with different bands. There are screaming blues sessions and a subdued, previously neglected trio date with the vibist Teddy Charles. There's "The Clown," where Mingus's band and the storyteller Jean Shepherd improvise together. And as if to sum up the effect of the whole set, an entire CD is given over to a rambling "interview" between Mingus and his producer, Nesuhi Ertegun. It's a collection as expansive and unruly as Mingus himself.

We often say of jazz musicians that they're telling their story through the music. But instrumental music is essentially abstract, its content, emotional or otherwise, pretty much a matter of speculation. (Did Coltrane really give us an accurate "likeness" in his portrait of "Cousin Mary"?) Still, no jazz musician was as frankly topical in intent as Mingus. His pieces were autobiographical, sometimes political. He gave them titles like "Passions of a Man," "Prayer for Passive Resistance," and "Fables of Faubus" (about the segregationist governor of Arkansas). He called his "Pithecanthropus Erectus" a "jazz tone poem" meant to illustrate man's first attempt to stand erect, his pride and eventual downfall.

Other jazz musicians work from the inside out -- they begin with their playing, their instrument, and work their way out toward composition. With someone like Coltrane, a piece like "Chasin' the Trane" could come, in part, from his investigation of his tenor saxophone's sonic possibilities. But Mingus, a bass player, comes from the pantheon of jazz musicians who are primarily composers. He was one of his instrument's great virtuosos, and one of jazz's great composers. Like Ellington, Monk, Sun Ra, and George Russell, he worked from the outside in. And structure, for him, was always part of the struggle. How to get his feelings on paper and then get them to come out of the band? How to get each player to sound most like himself while at the same time making the composition sound like itself? When Mingus and his bands were in full flight, no one achieved a better balance between written and improvised passages.

"I play or write me, the way I feel," he once wrote. "Music is, or was, a language of the emotions." Yet no one filled his liner notes with more technical information about his compositions. As a jazz composer, he wanted to plan the spontaneous. He began teaching his musicians pieces by ear, either by singing their parts or playing them on the piano rather than writing them out.

After you've heard the roar and crackle of the Atlantic sessions, it might be a shock to go back to the subdued chamber jazz of some earlier Mingus pieces. "Pithecanthropus Erectus," from his first session for Atlantic, is considered his breakthrough -- technically for its extended structure and alterations of collective improvisation and written material, but also emotionally, for its expressive intensity. Atlantic marked Mingus's full-hearted return to the blues and African-American folk forms for sustenance (one of his most famous Atlantic sides, included here, was Blues & Roots).

The Rhino Atlantic box holds some of Mingus's greatest pieces and performances. Sometimes the most effective piece are the simplest. These days, "Pithecanthropus Erectus" sounds overly theatrical, it's crescendos and cued emotional climaxes a bit obvious. "Passions of a Man" is an experiment with overdubbing and spoken word, Mingus speaking in "tongues," vocalizing an invented language, now as an old harridan, now as a black militant (one recognizable word is "mau-mau," delivered with an ominous belly laugh). This is all mixed over rattling tambourines, siren sounds, "spooky" horns. It's pretty corny. His take on the Gershwins' "A Foggy Day" (replete with foghorns, car horns and police whistles) is supposed to be daring, but nowadays it just sounds dated.

One area where Mingus proves his mettle is in gorgeous ballads like "Portrait of Jackie" (for the alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean) and "Reincarnation of Lovebird." What Mingus proves here (and as he proved on pieces like "Goodbye Porkpie Hat") is that he writes great tunes, something most jazz composers still can't do. His big hit for Columbia would be "Better Get Hit in Your Soul," which gets an earlier treatment here. Along with his great hooky tunes come his brilliant orchestrations of collective improvisations. In pieces like "Cryin' Blues," "Hog Callin' Blues," Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," and "Ecclusiastics," he set multiple contrapuntal lines in motion, entering one horn at a time, the textures becoming denser, the rhythms more propulsive. The image of the barreling freight train has never been more apt. In the blues, and call-and-response figures, and massed polyphony, Mingus conjured by turns the spirit of Jelly Roll Morton ("My Jelly Roll Soul") and the African-American church. On stage, he wanted the distance and deliberation of art, and the unleashed passion of life itself. "Ecclusiastics" was "about" the Holiness church meetings he attended with his stepmother as a child. But performed well, it was a consecration in its own right.

You can hear Mingus at his full-tilt best on the justly famous "Moanin,' " with its opening, hard-driving baritone-sax solo theme by Pepper Adams. It's a bedrock riff. As Adams repeats it, the low moaning trombones of Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis come in with hard snare and cymbal snips from Dannie Richmond. A quick drumroll cues in Mingus's hard, straight-walking bass and one of Booker Ervin's keening tenor solos, all the while with baritone, altos, and trombones braying around him. New themes enter and intertwine, each horn supporting the others, reaching a peak until Mingus bursts out, "Yeah, I know!"

Through all these sides, Mingus is constantly shifting times and tempos: straight four, waltzes and 6/8, double time, half time, free time, everything to keep the soloist on his trajectory through the piece. Tightly written passages, or sections dense with melodies and countermelodies, will suddenly give way to a stop-time passage, leaving a soloist exposed, forced to negotiate from point A to point B without a guidepost, and with the ever-vigilant Mingus behind him, pounding out those one-note-to-the-bar accents as a kind of reminder that clichés are verboten. It was an atmosphere players like Ervin, McLean, John Handy, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (all in fine fettle on the Rhino box), and others thrived on.

No one was more demanding of his players (he was known, on a couple of occasions, to punch them out on the bandstand in frustration). He riled McLean not to play Charlie Parker but to play himself. And yet he also wanted his musicians to be immersed in the spirit of the piece. It was almost as though the piece wouldn't work unless Mingus pushed each player to the limit -- follow the piece and it will set you free, he seemed to say. When it worked, when Booker Ervin or Eric Dolphy took flight, Mingus encouraged him with an "Oh yeah!"

Maybe that's why so much of today's talk about the "democracy" of jazz drives me to distraction, all that business about everyone working together for the common good while politely expressing his or her own individuality. In Mingus's music, the common good and the individual expression are always posed as a question, not an answer. And that's why it's always full of the tension that draws directly from life. That's when Mingus's blues are no longer abstract but as real as the man.

Other Boxes, Not Enough Rooms

In the glut of Christmas box sets, one gem that might easily get overlooked is Hot Jazz on Blue Note (Blue Note) a four-CD set of that label's revivalist New Orleans and Chicago-type sessions from the '40s and '50s -- what compiler Dan Morgenstern calls "boogie woogie, the blues, and Bechet." The individual discs seem programmed for flow rather than chronology or themes, which is just fine. The great clarinettist/soprano-saxist Sidney Bechet makes appearances from beginning to end, but so do a host of all-stars, so you're likely to be just as taken by Albert Nicholas's deep, emotive woodwind warbles or Max Kaminsky's yammering trumpet spiels. The rhythmic force and melodic invention here will dust aside any preconceptions you may have about "Dixieland."

The Complete Bill Evans on Verve (Verve) is at the other end of the spectrum. At $289.99 list price (though discounted for the season at most stores) and 18 CDs thick, it is perhaps the ultimate jazz-collector fetish object. Covering prime mid-career Evans (March 1962 to April 1970), it's packaged in an "untreated steel" box "designed to be a unique, collectible object itself which will change in color, texture, and appearance over time and will rust."

So how does the box measure up, especially when you consider that there are, by my count, now five Evans boxed sets on the market? On the Verve box you get, arguably, one of Evans's best albums ever, Live at Montreaux (with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette), duet sessions with guitarist Jim Hall, the underrated Alone solo album, and much previously unissued material from dates with the drummer Evans called his favorite, Philly Joe Jones.

Other revelations: an early chamber-jazz session with the composer/arranger Gary McFarland; a club date with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker that swings as hard as anything in the Evans discography and is also one of his most beautifully recorded. And yes, there's plenty that's dispensable: a session with the Swedish chanteuse Monica Zetterlund, some unnerving electric piano, and the occasional "alternate take" of only academic interest. At its best, the Verve set creates that sensation unique to good jazz boxes: as if with each disc you were turning the pages of a vast 19th-century novel, following the episodic, often deeply lyrical and moving adventures of young Bill.

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