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.