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An excellent album, and an excellent introduction to Charles Mingus
on 24 August 2007
Charles Mingus is a somewhat daunting figure in jazz music, and his records are not only musical adventures, but to delve even into the field of anthropology and psychology. Knowing where to start is difficult (Mingus' first major album's title was in Latin!), and the later records are conceptually so broad that they could put the casual listener off. This is not to say that they are not great music - they are stunning - but if you are looking to get into one of jazz music's most exciting and individual band leaders, you could do a lot worse than start with this disc.
This album was recorded at an exciting time in Mingus' life and work. His ensemble had grown to what could be described as a small big-band of around 9 musicians, and he was drawing on a feast of ideas which were coming out of the Jazz Workshops in New York City. He recorded three great albums in this period, of which "Mingus Ah Um" is probably the most famous, and although "Blues and Roots" does not quite match it in the brilliance of its execution, it remains a thrilling, highly musical and enormously enjoyable jazz record.
It was the producer Nesuhi Ertegün who put forward the idea for "Blues and Roots", partly to refute criticism of Mingus which claimed he did not swing hard enough, and also to provide "a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy." If nothing else, this album succeeds on this scale a hundred times over. However, Mingus himself went on to say "blues can do more than just swing", and it is in this dimension that the album provides such lasting musical food for thought.
The swing of the album is set off powerfully in the opening number - "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" with its pulsating bass line. "Moanin" (track 3) swings like nothing on earth: Pepper Adams' baritone sax provides the bass ostinato figure and Dannie Richmond drives the ensemble into a frenzy of blues-soaked figures. However, this track also demonstrates the ability to change texture and mood that makes the album so satisfying: no sooner has the climax of the ensemble playing been reached, than the horn players all drop out and a much lighter solo section is introduced. Mingus uses these shifts and changes to brilliant effect throughout the disc, so that at no point does any one texture become monotonous or dragging.
The other side to the album is to be found in the variety of feelings which Mingus achieves with a relatively small force of instrumentalists. "Tensions", for example, is edgy and the horn players provide a figure that sits uneasily over the rhythm section's work. It should be noted that the bass solo on this track is vintage Mingus.
I mentioned above that this album is not as great as its very near contemporary "Ah Um", but it is still a great album, and one which really should be in your collection. What it does do is provide is fantastic musicians blowing great tracks that pulse and surge with energy.