on 16 December 2011
1956 is, by most accounts, an overlooked year for Jazz, both as genre and cultural phenomenon. The previous year had seen the untimely death of legendary saxophonist and resident jazz superstar Charlie Parker, and many players were beginning to tire of the rapid, complex changes of the be-bop style that was prevalent in the early 50s. Conversely, the second golden age of Jazz had yet to be ushered in by the Davis/Coltrane/Coleman triptych, whose convention-smashing classics (Kind of Blue, Giant Steps and The Shape of Jazz to Come respectively) wouldn't come out until 1959 - It would seem, musically, that the genre was 'stuck between stations', so to speak. Despite this, the year played host to at least three stone-cold classics: Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners, and of course the subject of this review, Pithecanthropus Erectus, perhaps the greatest of the three.
Literally meaning 'Upright Ape-Man', when translated from its poncey Latin, the album kicks off with the brilliant title track - a 'concept song' of sorts, dealing with man's rise and evolution, from growth and happiness to complacency, arrogance and eventual downfall - hence the title. Composed in the form of a 4-part, 10 minute tone poem (but don't let that put you off), the track begins in a subdued fashion, with Mingus' pulsing 4/4 bassline augmented by the occasional filigree of horns, before slowly building to one of 4 raucous interludes, which grow progressively louder and more sinister as the piece wears on. Immediately noticeable is the remarkably selfless playing of everyone involved - Mingus, as on many of his albums, used relatively unknown session musicians, who do a fine job of employing the texture and timbre of their instruments to add to the whole, rather than overpowering it, lending a feeling of cohesion absent from many 'supergroup' Jazz albums of the era. As the track fades out with ominous drones and squealing strings, Mingus' genius is clear in his clever deconstruction of jazz cliches, re-assembling them in such a way that his music sounds forward-looking and familiar all at once.
The other three tracks can't quite match up to the same impossibly high standards, but are still for the most part sublime explorations of mood and feeling. 'A Foggy Day' begins and ends in a heady swirl of cars, police whistles and sirens, in between segueing in and out of a brisk but relaxed section of prime hard-bop, almost as if to show that he could still do the traditional stuff, and better than anyone else to boot. Once again, the magic lies in the interpolation of these two sides of his music, which would be improved upon even further in later albums - when the effects fade out and the band enters (or vice versa) it feels as natural as, well, evolution. (see what I did there? huh?)
'Profile of Jackie' is a short, elegiac piece in the vein of later landmarks such as 'Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat', off Mingus Ah Um. Though it doesn't measure up to later explorations in terms of style or ambition, the sensitive piano playing, rich, idiosyncratic harmonies, and the jigsaw-like way in which every part contributes something toward the whole is classic Mingus, whilst also offering us a change of pace before the epic album closer, 'Love Chant'. Ok, so maybe it doesn't make quite as amazing use of it's extended running time as the title track, but it still oozes class from every pore, from the understated syncopation in the intro, to the multitude of dynamic changes, bass solos, and dual saxophone breakdowns (br00tal). If it never really explodes in the way the the title track does, there's plenty of great sonic details to marvel at, like the short, almost orchestral crescendos that appear periodically, and of course Mingus' instantly recognizable bass playing, at once propulsive and adventurous.
For its time, this album was groundbreaking in its musical synthesis. Though the man would go onto even greater heights, in the same style and others, this stands as one of his great early works, and as an important and worthy contribution to the genre.
Charles Mingus. Double bass player. Composer. Vocalist. All round freeform jazz guru. Famous for pushing the boundaries of experimental jazz and encouraging others to follow, he is a major figure in the music of the twentieth century. Of especial interest is his pioneering of the use of dissonance to make great sounding music- a seeming contradiction, but it all works out very nicely.
This 1956 recording, more properly attributed to the Charles Mingus jazz workshop, is a masterpiece of the genre. With only 4 tracks and a runtime of only 35 minutes, it's a little short, but not a moment is wasted and the record is jam packed with music of the highest order.
We are treated to three Mingus originals, Pithecanthropus Erctus, Profile OF Jackie and Love Chant, and a cover of the Gershwin's Foggy Day. The originals are just that - original. Bursting with complex rhythms, new musical ideas and interesting juxtapositions, these sound as fresh and interesting today as they did 50 years ago. The revelation is Foggy Day, taking the familiar tune as its basis a great panoramic vision has been built around it. Close your eyes and you can almost picture yourself strolling down a fog bound Embankment.
It's not all incomprehensible high falutin' impenetrable jazz though, it's a very listenable set that will probably appeal to more than just the esoteric jazz fan.
This edition is pretty good, the sound is nice and clear and well mixed. There is an interesting booklet with the original liner notes and a good essay. This is turning out to be an excellent set of releases from Atlantic.
Highly recommended record. 5 Stars.
on 15 October 2007
I always feel the need to start any jazz review with a disclaimer, something along the lines of "I don't know a lot about jazz but...". I'm resisting the temptation with this one though, as the pure invention and passion present in this album makes me feel like a seasoned pro. Back when my MP3 player was still working, 'Love Chant' was always the track I reached for. It's perfect walking music, something that makes even the most mundane of surroundings seem like I'm in an obscure French film, sipping coffee and chatting about nonsense. Actually, come to think of it, all of the album has that kind of atmosphere to it; from the incredible story played out in the title track, to the car horns 'n' all New York street level chaos of 'A Foggy Day'. I have no reservations in proclaiming Pithecanthropus Erectus as the first jazz album I feel I fully "get", and it still fills me with awe every time I listen to it. Respect.
This 1956 album by the highly influential and revolutionary jazz musician, composer and arranger Charles Mingus is generally recognised as the man's first attempts at recording music according to his principles of individual player improvisation within Mingus' own defined framework, comprising both musical definition and, equally importantly, feel. What is also particularly notable about this album and, in particular, in its legendary title piece, is that it is possible to detect (in the composition and playing) Mingus' conception and belief that all forms of music (in particular jazz and classical) should be fused into a single form - a concept that he would take to (arguably) its ultimate conclusion on his later masterpiece, The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady.
Sonically, what I find most amazing about the album's title piece (itself Mingus' musical depiction of humankind's evolution, misplaced exploitation and eventual decline) is the way this mere 5-piece set-up, comprising (in addition to Mingus) Jackie McLean on alto, J R Monterose on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano and Willie Jones on drums, can conjure up such an apparently 'large' ensemble sound (as compared with his 11-piece band on Black Saint). Of course, this does not mean that there is any shortage of evocatively felt soloing (and indeed squealing) from the horns, within the piece's infectiously complex rhythm.
In addition to the title piece, we have the other extended Mingus composition Love Chant, another (slightly more restrained) exposition, based around Waldron's mesmerising chord introduction and featuring some more fine soloing, and playing in tandem, from the two horns. Given the nature of his performance on this album it is all the more surprising that Mingus eventually decided that altoist McLean was unable to 'fit' style-wise within the Mingus band set-up. The one non-Mingus composition here is the amazing version of Gershwin's A Foggy Day (which Mingus stressed was taking place in San Francisco rather than London) which, as well as featuring some beautifully laid back and evocative playing from McLean and Monterose (plus a nice solo from Mingus), transports the listener to its city setting via its sound effects of cop's whistle, fog horn, car horn and cable car clang. Finally we have the Mingus dedication to his alto player in the brief and heartfelt piece Profile of Jackie, which provides a nice interlude between the album's more exhilarating sounds.
A classic jazz recording which, particularly in the form of its title composition, represented a milestone of the genre.
on 23 March 2004
"PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS (EreLt Ape-Man), the name given by Dr Eugene Dubois, of the Dutch army medical service, to the imaginary creature which he constructed from fossilized remains found by him in Java."
I can't believe this album was recorded in 1956, it sounds so fresh and clear. I am not a jazz expert, and it may seem a bit obvious to some but I have seldom heard music which depicts such images. The track "Pithecanthropus Erectus" conjures up images of a dinosaur wriggling and emerging from a primaeval forest of sound, and the intro to "Foggy Day" takes you right into the heart of a San Francisco traffic jam, sound effects all done on instruments here, apparently. Overall a very entertaining album, and sound effects aside, great music!