Monday, March 29, 2010

Charles Mingus: The Underdog Triumphs

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.”

                          -Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus recorded over one hundred albums and wrote three hundred scores during his lifetime, making him one of the most prodigious jazz composers since Duke Ellington. His contributions to jazz and music in general are vast, passionate, and complex. Though all of Mingus' recordings were part of a musical evolution, the albums Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), and Let My Children Hear My Music (1972), contain his most compelling and brilliant recordings.

Pithecanthropus Erectus was released in 1956 on Atlantic Records. The title track of the album tells the tale of the rise and fall of man, do in part to his own arrogance, in the form of a ten minute experimental tone poem, featuring a section that is completely free of structure or theme. The song is considered a precursor for the experiments in composition that would come along with the free jazz movement of the 1960's.

Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty were both released by Columbia records in 1959 are high points of Mingus' creative powers. The compositions on Mingus Ah Um, all but one written by Mingus, pay strong tribute to to Charles' musical forefathers, including Lester Young (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat), Duke Ellington (Open Letter to Duke), and Jelly Roll Morton (Jelly Roll). Mingus Ah Um is a gritty blues based album featuring Better Get Hit In Your Soul and the outwardly political Fables of Faubus. The version on the album is instrumental because Columbia Records wouldn't release the original version that contained inflammatory lyrics that attacked the Segregationist Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus for using the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. The song, with full lyrics was recorded two years later as Original Faubus Fables, for the album Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus which was released on the independent Candid Label. Mingus Ah Um was chosen for the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2003.

Mingus Dynasty was the follow-up album to Mingus Ah Um. It is for this reason that the album tends to get overlooked. Both albums are steeped in Mingus' roots. Blues, gospel, the rhythms of prayer meetings, mixed with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Mingus' own powerful vision. Many of the songs on the album were composed for film and television in the wake of the success of Mingus Ah Um. In 1999, Mingus Dynasty was in inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is an impassioned, multi-textured six part suite, written as a ballet. Mingus created a unique orchestral style that he called, “ethnic folk dance music”, while giving a nod to Ellington and various Latin musical styles in the composition. Though the music has a deep emotional range, the pieces never meander or lose any potency. Every note of every movement is powerful and felt with intensity Mingus intended. The liner notes for Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, were written by Mingus and a psychiatrist who treated him at Bellevue, and are dance between clinical observation and uncertain ramblings. The album is consider by jazz critics and fans alike to be in the top ten of greatest jazz albums of all time.

When Charles Mingus released Let My Children Hear My Music in 1972, he was past his prime and still struggling with the most complex composition of his life, “Epitaph”, which had collapsed under its own brilliance when it was hastily debuted in 1964. At the time of it's release, Mingus called Let My Children Hear My Music, “the best album I have ever made.” The denseness, strength, and sheer ambition of the album makes it feel like a return to the glory of the mid 50's through early 60's.

Charles Mingus worked tirelessly to push the boundaries of jazz with innovative compositions and a rotating roster of musicians including some of the most skilled and cutting edge in jazz, like Jaki Byard, Dannie Richmond, John Handy, Eric Dolphy, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Mingus' greatest musical legacy and his genius was finally fully realized, ten years after he died from ALS. In 1989, with the help of conductor Gunther Schuller and a thirty piece orchestra, Charles Mingus' opus Epitaph was performed in its entirety for the first time to rave reviews.

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