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Ensemble Playing Par Excellence
on 13 September 2012
This 1963 recording by Charles Mingus and his 11-piece ensemble is a magnificent 'concept album' (if I dare use that term), providing, along with John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, my favourite (jazz) examples of this phenomenon. However, whilst Mingus and Coltrane's albums might have common approaches in the use of unifying themes, there the similarity ends, as Coltrane's sparser quartet sound is pretty much the antithesis of Mingus' highly interwoven masterpiece, which draws heavily on the influences of earlier big band jazz (in particular, Mingus' hero Duke Ellington), gospel, blues and, even, classical music.
Whilst the album has many superbly lyrical and melodic themes which recur throughout its six musical Modes (grouped into four album tracks), for me, it is the dynamism and integration of the playing, leading to its overall impression as a single musical piece that set The Black Saint And Sinner Lady apart from pretty much all other jazz (and most other musical) recordings. Underlying the entire recording are Mingus' impassioned themes of minority oppression, revolt, redemption, freedom and love, which together convey the essence that this is music that must not only be listened to, but also deeply felt.
It really is difficult to know where to start in terms of the performances of Mingus assembled musicians, many of whom, despite being well-established sidemen with other leading jazz players, never achieved notoriety as bandleaders. Suffice to say, the playing on the album never falters and I would only pick out Don Butterfield's amazing contrabass trombone and tuba, which provide much of the music's underlying, throbbing rhythm, the exquisite trumpet playing of Rolf Ericson and Richard Williams, whose sound is used to mimic (with remarkable accuracy) the plaintive cries of the oppressed, and the vibrant drumming of Dannie Richmond, who, along with Elvin Jones - another good choice - was Mingus' favoured beatman.
An essential recording.