This piece appears on Mingus Ah Um, a 1959 album by Charles Mingus, and on Mingus at Antibes, recorded live the next year. There may be a few rock-&-roll fans who haven’t heard this and don’t know how hard jazz can be played; I can’t imagine any band ever playing harder. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Mingus (1922-79), spent much of his life at the top of the jazz world. He was prolific; there are many records and I only own a handful, but I look forward to exploring the rest.
The idiom is hard-bop, most of the playing fast, stepping out of the bounds of traditional Western tonality as required, pushing hard at the boundaries of what was then considered sanity in the arrangements and ensemble. Some of it goes way out into what was later called “free-jazz” territory, but Mingus had the wisdom to keep that short and then re-converge with a bang, so for me, it mostly works, and I have trouble with most free jazz.
It’s always a small ensemble, something like trumpet/sax/sax/bass/drums/piano. There are big solos but a lot of the improvisation is collective, with the players lashing each other higher and higher. The debt to New Orleans parade music and black-church gospel is obvious and was freely acknowledged by Mingus.
He was an angry, sometimes nasty, sometimes violent, man. Some of it was political; it was reasonable for a talented black person born in the Twenties to have spent most of his life angry. But he went beyond that, sometimes assaulting people on the stage and in the studio. Late in life, he collaborated with Joni Mitchell, and on that record (which I can’t seem to find at the moment) there’s a Mingus soliloquy entitled Lucky Man; given his reputation, it’s oddly sunny and relaxed. He talks about how life is really shitty for some people, but for himself, he can’t complain too much; “I always had money to rub together in my pocket” he explains.
The Music · What happened was, sometime in the Seventies, I was in university majoring in sex, drugs, rock&roll, and left-wing politics, and I heard the Antibes version of Better Get Hit In Your Soul very late on one of those nights before the morning after and my eyes got big as saucers, “There’s jazz that’s hotter than Deep Purple?!?” Well, not much, actually; but Mingus is at the center of it.
I’ve come to like the studio version of Better Git Hit In Your Soul on Mingus Ah Um too, it’s got most of the energy but there’s more room between the notes, and they have time to caress them a bit. Also Horace Parlan provides nice light fast piano support.
But the Antibes take discards all that subtlety crap and explores what happens when one of the great jazz bands of all time puts the pedal right down to the metal and holds it there for 11:34. Another description would be “divine madness”.
Here’s what I wrote when I listened to it just now: Bass intro, big loud brass call/response, a chorus that sounds like schoolyard taunt, a sizzly sax plays alone, then the band rolls in behind to make it faster and hotter, colourful explosions of atonality, back to the fast sizzle, the rhythm section goes away and the band claps behind the saxes, sizzle again, those atonal bits work because the music is so hot that he just had to explode outside the form, now Mingus is whooping and chortling into a little drum break, now the band vamps fast behind trumpet fireworks from Ted Curson, oops, there go the drums again, there’s the vamp, there’s Ted, suddenly we’re listening to Charlie play big piano chords in front of the drums. Return to the opening call/response, but they’re shouting now, and a wrap-up that Tchaikowsky would have been proud of.
Antibes has two more of these hell-for-leather charges, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and Folk Forms. A couple of the tracks veer into boring self-indulgence though, the pit that free jazz is always skating close to the edge of.
On balance, Ah Um is maybe the deeper recording, it has the incandescent Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, the studied Fables of Faubus, the slow funk of Pussy Cat Dues, the silky trombone blues of Jelly Roll, and pretty well no wasted notes.
The sound quality on both records is pretty wonderful; it’s amazing what you can accomplish by pointing high-quality electromechanical microphones at a stage and capturing the output on high-quality magnetic tape. None of that digital crap, you know.
Sampling It · That’d be silly. Both Ah Um and Antibes are superb records that will stretch your mind and have you boppin’. So go buy a shiny silver disc or two already.