The new Mingus box set from Mosaic is a treasure trove— jazz lovers should get their hands on one of the 7,500 limited edition copies.
By Steve Mossberg
Digging into Mosaic’s new box set Charles Mingus – The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65 is daunting, even for the Mingus connoisseur: seven CDs, 120 dollars, and over seven hours of playing time. It is, however, well worth doing so. Though the collection may not add up to a comprehensive portrait of the legendary bassist and composer, or even a definitive account of what he was capable of, it would be no stretch to say that it may be the best single slice of his catalog that money can buy.
The material comes from a period in the mid 1960s when Mingus was putting records out for himself and selling them via mail. His compositional powers were near their peak, and his works were turning into elaborate suites, regularly stretching past the 20-minute mark. His former labels Columbia and Impulse! were unwilling to fund any more of the large-ensemble sessions he had been recording because they were looking less and less commercially attractive.
The bassist’s response was to pare his groups down to sextets and quintets and take matters into his own hands. The result is an artistic peak generated by the strength of his compositions and the chemistry of the 1964 sextet. The seven discs in the Mosaic box set span five concerts in Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Monterey, and New York’s Town Hall (not the notorious big band fiasco released as The Complete Town Hall Concert). Each concert in the set shows innovation and variety, even when pieces are repeated (the nearly half-hour long “Meditations” is included three times).
The box set doesn’t represent Mingus’s early experimentations in the third stream or polished big band arrangements, and there’s little in the way of the soulful church music of Blues & Roots or Mingus Ah Um. Still, the repeated renditions of “Meditations,” “So Long, Eric,” and “Orange Was The Color of Her Dress” represent some of the composer’s most vital work. The takes on “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” and “Fables of Faubus” are so extended as to completely eclipse their original recordings on earlier studio releases. The songs debuted in these concerts are high watermarks in Mingus’s career, and the others are, generally speaking, well worth hearing.
Known for his bullying personality and temper as much as his prodigious talents as a composer and bassist, Mingus fits into the category of an artist who does his best work when there are no other cooks in the kitchen. He sounds completely in control on all seven discs, both as a musician and as a MC. You can hear him bantering with audience and band alike on every concert, using his microphone time to vent his outrage at racism in politics and what he considered dishonesty in jazz music. His anger at the record companies that had recently rejected him flares up at one point into outright accusations of theft. He shows his humorous side (and surprising sensitivity) when thanking his audience: “I love you very much.” Anyone captivated by the words of Mingus in his writings and documentary footage will find much to enjoy on the recordings in addition to the music.
Whatever rage Mingus didn’t rightly direct at Jim Crow or at his musical competitors and financial backers he typically reserved for his many oft-changing sidemen. Amazingly, he was able to keep together some very strong musicians in 1964 and ’65. The obvious mainstay in the band was the drummer Dannie Richmond, who spent the better part of Mingus’s career in the percussion seat. He can be heard singing along with the leader on the anti-segregation anthem “Fables of Faubus” and fooling around with the crowd on the 1965 Monterey concert. His drumming is a highly complementary blend of intellect and soul, and he plays flawlessly on all five concerts.
Jaki Byard was as much Mingus’s alter-ego on piano as McCoy Tyner was John Coltrane’s. Both he and the bassist shared an enthusiasm for pre-bebop composers and players, drawing on classical roots to develop highly personal styles of improvisation and composition. The set contains two versions of “A.T.F.W,” Byard’s solo tribute to the original stride pianists, and though they are not hugely different, both efforts demonstrate his fierce virtuosity. And they are superb examples of how a piece can develop creatively throughout the life of a touring band.
The legendary, avant-garde alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, like his innovative predecessor, Charlie Parker, was prone to playing patterns that crop up again and again in his improvisations. That said, his work on the two different concert dates on which he appears in the box set are sufficiently distinct and fresh enough to warrant repeated listening, especially considering the dearth of documented music from his short life.
Unfortunately, despite the general brilliance of Mingus’s working bands of the period, the box set also shows that not all sidemen are created equal. After listening to the volcanic Eric Dolphy on the European date and the Town Hall concert, it’s hard to settle for Charles McPherson’s alto on the other American dates. McPherson is strong for sure, but his predecessor sets fire to a hodgepodge like the Charlie Parker tribute “Parkeriana,” while in Minneapolis McPherson doesn’t take the jazz standard medley much farther than the average, straight-ahead player of his time could have. Likewise, where trumpeter Johnny Coles blows an ice-cold wind of hipness into the mix in Amsterdam, Lonnie Hillyer brings an astute but less nimbly bebop approach to the table. In some ways, the contrast between the players is an asset, but the devolution in energy from Dolphy (who died in 1964) to Coles on the later dates is to the collection’s detriment.
The 1964 concert from Monterey, though previously released on the Jazz Workshop label, is a must-hear for the uninitiated. On “Meditations on Integration,” the band is joined by a strong, West Coast horn section arranged by Byard, and the result is very powerful, so much so that concert organizer Jimmy Lyons is left speechless and breathless when he comes out to thank the band for its performance.
For the enthusiast who has it all and is looking to complete their Mingus collection, there are about two hours of material that has never seen the light of day, mostly from the Minneapolis and Town Hall Concerts. Highlights include long versions of “Parkeriana” and “Fables of Faubus” with Dolphy, Coles, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan in top form, and some fierce piano playing from Mingus in Minneapolis when he and Byard switch instruments. Given the hefty price tag for the box set, the short running time of the truly new music may make it a problematic purchase for the aficionado.
The large box contains a glossy booklet with some very attractive photographs of the various ensembles in action. The English jazz historian Brian Priestly contributes what amounts to a well written play by play—who solos when, who played on each date, and how the concerts were previously released. In addition, Sue Mingus contributes a nice remembrance on how she and her husband ran his mail order label, and there are brief bios of all the musicians included on the set. Aside from that, there are some detailed notes on the provenance of the recordings. The restoration of the audio is exquisite.
Sue Mingus opens up her portion of the liner notes to the set by saying that there are about 40 live tapes of her husband languishing in storage. If the vitality and quality of the music on “The Jazz Workshop Concerts” is any indication of what is still hidden from public ears, she needs to find a distributor for the rest of it. Until then, the Mosaic box set is an indispensable treasure trove for Mingus lovers.