15. Mingus Revisited
Record: Mingus Revisited
Artist: Charles Mingus
Released: Limelight Records, 1965
The cover of this record tells you everything you need to know. To steal a phrase from the modern parlance, back in the 1960s Charles Mingus was playing chess while everyone else played checkers. Look at him as he sits comfortably before the board, fingers intertwined, eyes closed as he contemplates his next move.
His move with this record was to be experimental, to push the boundaries of jazz forward. This was originally recorded in 1960 and released the following year by Mercury Records with the title Pre-Bird. (That title reflects the idea that Mingus hadn't yet listened to Charlie "Bird" Parker, who would become a great influence.) Producer Leonard Feather writes in the liner notes, "Unavailable for many years, it is herein reissued because of its historical importance."
It's important because it's unlike anything almost anyone else was doing at the time. John Coltrane and Miles Davis, both separately and together, would push jazz into challenging directions, but even they weren't doing what Mingus was.
Mingus had already made his mark as a bassist, and now he was composing. Most of the tracks on this record are compositions of his own for a band that is big, if not a "big band." In addition to Mingus's bass, there are five trumpets, four trombones, six saxophones, three percussionists, a tuba, a flute, a cello, a piano, and even an oboe. Most of those unexpected instruments contribute to the Mingus originals, the final four tracks on side one, and the final two on the reverse.
Mingus sets up an interesting contrast on each side as he begins with traditional tunes, including a tribute to one of his greatest influences, Duke Ellington (more on that coming), then finishes with his own songs which are anything but traditional. Mingus spoke often about his love of classical music and composers like Ravel and Debussy, and those influences are heard in these compositions which are jazz numbers, certainly, but are also orchestral in nature.
On two songs he even enlists the services of a vocalist, Lorraine Cousins, uncredited except in Feather's notes, and her haunting vocals paired with the unorthodox feel of those tracks produce songs which are as unsettling as they are brilliant. I was listening to them one evening in the dining room when my phone pinged with a text from my wife who was writing in the adjacent office.
"Do you mind using headphones? The music is kinda stressing me out... It sounds like a scary movie or something."
She wasn't wrong, and I'm guessing many listeners in 1961 (or 1965) must've had similar reactions. It's different, to say the least.
But let's go back to the opening tracks from each side. The record begins with "Take the 'A' Train," a Billy Strayhorn classic that I remember playing in middle school jazz band. Side two opens with an Ellington number, "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me."
It all seems fairly straight forward until you look deeper at the track listing and put the needle on the record. Each opening track is actually an interpolation of two songs. Mingus has overlapped two songs on one track. On side one that means in addition to "Take the 'A' Train," you're also listening to "Exactly Like You." Mingus's arrangement overlaps the two songs, with the melody from one on the left channel (in your left ear if you're using headphones) and the second melody on the right channel. It isn't just genius, it's mad-scientist-genius. And the best part? For listeners who aren't aware of what's going on, it's just a song.
Considering all this, Mingus Revisited isn't just a record. It's the preservation of a moment in time when an artist pushed the boundaries of his chosen medium. Like any artwork described as avant garde, it can be disconcerting at first listen, but after spinning it almost every day for the past week, I've come to appreciate the challenging sections as much as the melodic interludes. It's all fairly amazing.
Finally, there was a surprise. On the back of the album jacket in the upper righthand corner, a message is written with a blue ballpoint pen in my father's elegant handwriting: "Demo for Sylvia." I don't know who Sylvia was, nor do I need to know. Those three words trigger the imagination and conjure a scene of my father sharing this music with someone else. Music, after all, is meant to be shared.
Take the "A" Train/Exactly Like You
Prayer for Passive Resistance
Mingus Fingus No. 2
Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart