Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charles Mingus - American Treasure

     Charles Mingus. Even if you own just one of the many great albums Charles Mingus released in his long and varied career it is very likely it contains music thoroughly infused with the potent and heady flavor that can only be described as MINGUS FLAVOR. But it’s not like a flavor of ice cream that has only one taste to it. Or like an actor such as John Wayne who can only play one type of character – himself. This is the way it is with music – how sound can be imprinted with such a strong personality that no matter if it’s a ballad or up-tempo number – the identity of its creator is INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE. Can we put it down to the church-y bluesiness? The call and response? The vocalizing? The trombones? Heavy riffing? Or just sheer force of will on unsuspecting air molecules?

    I don’t know what to put it down to, but every so often I put on a Mingus album and I am confronted with THE BEST MUSIC I’VE HEARD THAT WEEK. Different albums. Different sidemen (though usually always featuring the wonderful, woefully under-recognized Dannie Richmond on drums). What I love most about Dannie Richmond is his swinging flexibility – the way he telepathically moves along with Mingus through all the complex arrangements – those two were psychically fused – two men, ONE BRAIN! Maybe the only reasonable explanation for how he successfully navigated those diabolically unpredictable tempo and rhythm changes Mingus loved to incorporate into his many compositions. Here’s a great photo of Dannie Richmond:
And that, to me, is what Mingus will be remembered for – great compositions (and recordings of those compositions). His music has stood the test of time and, I am convinced, will continue to do so. For some reason I was thinking of Charles Mingus as amongst the great American Composers – right up there will Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives. Miles Davis may have put out great albums like Kind of Blue, but Mingus one-ups him in terms of great compositions.

Although Mingus was not happy with the interpretation, the first I heard of Mingus’s music was on the Jeff Beck album “Wired” where the standard “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was a featured cover tune. It really is a soulful interpretation, though part of Mingus’s complaint had to do with some missing chord changes on Jeff Beck’s record. I reckon Mingus didn’t mind the royalty payments from the album though. Yet, as truly wonderful as his music is – there aren’t very many folks looking to cover Mingus tunes. Ray Davies went out of his way to rectify this situation with a film and album in the early 90s done as a tribute to Mingus the composer – a joint venture with the great Hal Wilner called “Weird Nightmare” after that most puzzling Mingus song. Here’s the documentary which includes folks like Elvis Costello, Vernon Reid and a few Rolling Stones laying down some tracks in honor of the great man himself. I love how the neighborhood of the recording studio forms the backdrop of the documentary – Astoria in Queens, New York City. This is nearby my roots and its fascinating for me to see some of my musical heroes hanging around a part of the city that looks very much like my childhood stomping grounds (with the elevated trains and whatnot).

There is NO WAY just one blog entry will accurately convey the sheer awesome-ness of Mingus. There are a couple of biographies available which I have read. The more recent one, Myself When I am Real by Gene Santoro is an exploration into Mingus the man and to his credit, Santoro does manage to humanize the man behind the talent. But Santoro’s writing style tends to grate on the nerves after awhile (I have never encountered a single work by any writer that over-uses the term “Zeitgeist” more than Santoro does in this book and it’s FREAKING ANNOYING, dude. Sorry – I just had to put it out there.) Another book I read focuses more on the music than the man:  Mingus – A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley. While this books is much less hysterical in its prose than Santoro’s book, the reluctance of the writer to delve a little deeper below the surface of this fascinating subject results in a work that is perhaps too academic. I would love to read a more sophisticated analysis of Charles Mingus and his music someday…….

Soulful, sophisticated, funny, earthy, transcendent, roots-oriented while simultaneously future-oriented. Mingus music has it all. Another early encounter with Charles Mingus for me was this 2-LP set I borrowed from the local library (when they had LPs) – a collection of Mingus albums he did for the Prestige label in the mid-1950s.
The updated cover art is sooooooo deceptive though. Here, Mingus looks like some jolly, jovial Buddha-esque character. Riiiiiiiiight! Of course, he had his share of troubles – both internal and external. But even though his decline was long and protracted, there remains such a legacy of inspiration, seeking and general enthusiasm for life in his work – it cannot be denied.

Already this entry on Charles Mingus has taken up so much space and yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the great memories I have of his music and what it means to me. So I’ll warn you now  -  Mingus will make a comeback here in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to purchase any one of the following Mingus albums that are guaranteed to BLOW YOUR BLUES RIGHT OUT OF YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS. Howza ‘bout…….

1. Mingus Ah Um…….
2. Tijuana Moods
3. Mingus At Antibes
4. Mingus in Wonderland

Any of the above titles are sure to get your juices flowing. And here’s another great documentary about Mingus called “Triumph of the Underdog”. Really, this is all just a beginning……….

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