CD 1-2: Tijuana Moods (1957) -CM, b, voc; Clarence Shaw, tpt; Jimmy Knepper, tbn; Shafi Hadi, as, ts; Bill Triglia, p; Dannie Richmond, dr; Frankie Dunlop, perc; Ysabel Morel, voc; Lonnie Elder, narr.
CD 3: Mingus Ah Um (1959) -CM, b; Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi, ts; John Handy, as; Jimmy Knepper, Willie Dennis, tbn; Horace Parlan, p; Dannie Richmond, dr.
CD 4: Mingus Dynasty (1960) -CM, b; Richard Williams, Don Ellis, tpt; Booker Ervin, Benny Golson, ts; John Handy, as; Jimmy Knepper, tbn; Teddy Charles, vib; Roland Hanna, p; Dannie Richmond, dr
CD 5: Alternate Takes (1957-62) -takes 1-6 from Ah Um and Dynasty albums; take 7 (Revelations) -CM, b; Louis Mucci, Art Farmer, tpt; John LaPorta, as; Hal McKusick, ts; Teo Macero, bari s; Jimmy Knepper, tbn; Jimmy Buffington, Fr hn; Manuel Zegler, bassoon; Robert DiDomenica, flt; Bill Evans, p; Barry Galbraith, guit; Teddy Charles, vib; Fred Zimmerman, b; Margaret Ross, harp; Teddy Sommer, dr; Gunther Schuller, cond. Take 8 (Non-Sectarian Blues) CM, b; Dave Brubeck, p.
CD 6: Let My Children Hear Music (1971) -CM, b, narr; full orch.
CD 7-8: CM and Friends in Concert (1972) -CM, b; Jon Faddis, Eddie Preston, Lonnie Hillyer, tpt; Gene Ammons, ts; Bobby Jones, ts, clari; George Dorsey, Lee Konitz, Charles McPherson, as; Rich Perry, as, flt; Gerry Mulligan, bari s; Howard Johnson, bari s, b clari; James Moody, flt; Eddie Bert, ten tbn; Charon Moe, Dick Berg, Fr hn; Bob Stewart, tuba; John Foster, Randy Weston, p; Milt Hinton, b; Joe Chambers, dr; Honey Gordon, voc; Bill Cosby, narr, emcee.
CD 9-10: Epitaph (1989) -Gunther Schuller, cond; Randy Brecker, Wynton Marsalis, Lew Soloff, Jack Walrath, Joe Wilder, Snooky Young, tpt; George Adams, ts; Phil Bodner, ts, flt, oboe, Eng hn; John Handy, Jerome Richardson, as, clari; Bobby Watson, as, clari, sop s, flt; Roger Rosenberg, bari s, clari, flt, picc; Gary Smulyan, bari s, clari; Michael Rabinowitz, bassoon, b clari; Dale Kleps, contrabass clari, b clari; Eddie Bert, Sam Burtis, Paul Faulise, Urbie Green, David Taylor, Britt Woodman, tbn; John Hicks, Roland Hanna, p; Reggie Johnson, Edwin Schuller, b; John Abercrombie, guit; Karl Berger, vib; Victor Lewis, dr; Daniel Druckman, perc.
Three great albums from the fertile period 1957-59 -Tijuana Moods, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty- plus an album and a half of alternate cuts taken from them- and a fourth album of some interest -Let My Children Hear Music. That's four and a half albums of glorious music padded out to ten albums in this monster set. The other albums included aren't bad -almost nothing Mingus recorded is devoid of interest- but they're decidedly second drawer, and the posthumously recorded Epitaph (1989), a set of Mingus compositions for large ensemble, conducted by Gunther Schuller, almost sinks under its own weight, so unwieldy is it. (But even in this ponderous album, there are moments of startling beauty and power. Mingus could write!)
For all the praise Mingus got in his lifetime -and it was a lot!-- he didn't get enough.
As a composer and arranger, as the leader of small and middle-sized bands, and as bass player, he was incomparable and sui generis, the greatest jazz composer and arranger since Jelly Roll Morton and Ellington. And those two names deserve to be bracketed with his because Mingus, more than any other composer, melded the music of his predecessors from the earliest days of jazz up through the swing era and into and beyond bop into one powerful, intensely lyrical music. Listening to a Mingus album was often a symposium on the history and richness of jazz. His compositions were often deliberately self-referential, from gospel songs ("Better Git It In Your Soul" in Ah Um and Epitaph, "Slop" on Dynasty, "Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting" in Atlantic's great Blues and Roots), a comic but loving nod toward Morton ("Jelly Roll" on Ah Um and again on Blues and Roots), his paean for Lester Young ("Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on Ah Um), Ellington ballads (Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Mood Indigo" on Dynasty) to bop and beyond (Gil Fuller's and Dizzy Gillespie's "Ool-ya-koo" on Mingus and Friends "Bird Calls" and "Gunslinging Bird" on, respectively, Ah Um and Dynasty).
The first thing one notes is what a great leader Mingus was. To start with, he was a consummate bass player, who moved with ease from walking bass to obbligato and offbeat figures, even strumming, all the time leading musicians along the path he wanted them to follow. Nobody ever played walking bass better than Mingus. To start with, nobody had stronger hands. Nobody -maybe Charlie Haden-- brought such a rich, deep, woody sound from his instrument. Listening to him in conjunction with recordings of the other great bassists of the late forties through the sixties -Oscar Pettiford or Ray Brown, for instance--is a revelation as to how great a player Mingus was.
And nobody played so well in the tradition (he had honed his playing in the biggest of the big bands, Ellington's, and the most intimate of combos, Norvo's guitar-bass-vibes trio) and yet so idiosyncratically. Mingus's compositional mind was rich in idiosyncrasy. It's common for a Mingus tune to start in one tempo or mood and switch gears back and forth, over and over again, in the space of a few minutes. His compositions, and the performances of them, are rich in complexity. You have to keep paying attention to them or you lose track and miss nuances. There's no such thing as a `simple' ballad in Mingus's oeuvre. See for instance the interweaving in slo mo of the beautiful melody ot "All the Things You Are," as countermelody in Mingus's "Self-Portrait in Three Colors" (Ah Um) or the way the band takes off on a tear near the end of "Mood Indigo" (Dynasty).
I cut my eyeteeth on Ah Um (the first album I bought), Dynasty, and Tijuana Moods so I'm particularly fond of them. "Better Git It in Your Soul" still seems the best of Mingus's Sunday night Bible meeting songs but I appreciate "Slop" more this time: it's not a throwaway as I thought when I first heard it but rather another composition and performance in the same genre. "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and "Fables of Faubus" are still wonderful, and "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" is one of the great compositions, arrangements and performance in modern jazz. This time around, I understood what was at play in "Jelly Roll." "Bird Calls" is a great composition -bop on speed- but features an awful solo by pianist Horace Parlan, usually one of Mingus's better pianists. But that's what you get with Mingus -brilliance mixed with a touch of the ramshackle. I think that's what he was trying to get out of his musicians, driving them to play outside their comfort zones.
Ah Um is still a more coherent album that Dynasty but Dynasty contains longer, more `composed` pieces-notably "Diane" and "New Know, Know How"--that make sense to me now although they didn't fifty years ago. They're not my favorites but they showcase his unbelievably fertile musical imagination.
They may have released an alternate cut of "Boogie Stop Shuffle" in this set. I haven't played my vinyl album of Ah Um for years but John Handy's (Shafi Hadi's?) introductory solo on this piece doesn't play out the way I remember it. Secondly, Mingus's ballad "Strolling," with vocal by Honey Gordon (never one of my favorites) has been added to Dynasty and the piece is weak, both in lyrics and performance.
The double-album concert with "friends" is a mixed bag, some very good stuff, some not so good but still worth listening to. Bill Cosby's stiff and overly arch introductions could have been dispensed with: they add nothing to the occasion. The album does bring to light one observation about Mingus, though. His music possesses a rare ability: for all that it is often modernist, it provokes the best in conservative soloists out of swing or mainstream bop, as well as more modern players (as in his later collaborations on Candid with Dolphy). On the Friends CDs that means tenor sax giant Gene Ammons soloes shoulder to shoulder with Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer, Milt Hinton alternates bass solos with Mingus, and there's room for sui generis musicians like Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz and Randy Weston to contribute their individual voices. The ensemble is unwieldy and not as well rehearsed as it could have been but it makes for interesting listening.
I have little to say about Let My Children and Epitaph. The ensembles in both are so large that it drowns the music. Of the two, Children is the better. Epitaph should have been strangled at birth, in my opinion, but, again, I don't know of any Mingus album that doesn't offer some delights.