As much as the unearthed Monk and Coltrane from a couple of years ago was, this is a monumental find. Recorded in performance at UCLA in 1965, this marks the first release of this performance that followed the performance given at the Monterey Jazz Festival that year by one week. As bassist and composer Charles Mingus notes in the opening monologue, though, the performance at Monterey was shortened. He claims they were allotted 20 minutes and history indicates it was barely 30. The performance here is of the complete program he planned to perform with his octet at Monterey with a few more pieces added to the date.
Collected on two discs, it captures the essence of Mingus. To call the performances heard here genius is understatement. What is the more fascinating aspect, perhaps, is that it is uncut and live. This means the music is as tentative in sections as it is riveting. Some music was literally being worked out on stage. Mingus’ interaction with his players is left unexpurgated in this creative process. Infamous for his temper and biting sarcasm, there are moments that bring this to fascinating life here, as well.
The opening 18 minute plus "Meditations on Peace" features long Mingus bass passages, itself something of a rarity on recording. Lonnie Hillyer and Hobart Dotson offer exciting and hypnotic trumpet, Jimmy Owens plays flugelhorn and trumpet, Charles McPherson is on alto. Mingus takes the last few seconds to peel off delightful piano, and long time drummer Danny Richmond explodes in percussive fury. The audience roars its approval and Mingus introduces the players, making it a point to point out the participation of Julius Watkins on flugelhorn and Howard Johnson on tuba. He then plays the piece for a minute on absolutely gorgeous arco bass.
Mingus introduces the following composition, "Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America" with some asides off microphone that evoked some laughter in the audience. This is followed by one long note blown by Johnson, which is followed by more delight among the audience members, as it was apparently a false start. Mingus is heard to explain to the audience that "this is why we call it a workshop, so we can goof," and to tell the band, "If we can’t play together, who will play with us?" -- which is met with uproarious laughter and applause from the audience. The piece is then played, though only for a bit over a minute, with Mingus telling the audience that this would be a long concert, "so relax yourself," while again giving instructions to the group members. Ultimately, the piece is then abandoned, to be performed in its entirety later that evening.
A trimmed down quartet performs "Ode To Bird and Dizzy," a piece that features explosive drumming, McPherson’s extraordinary alto and Hillyer’s exquisite trumpet, particularly in voicing with the saxophone. Mingus brought the octet back for a brilliant reading of "They Trespass The Land of the Sacred Sioux," which is notable for the dramatic and thoughtful performance that is the whole of the octet. Watkins French horn offers clarion calls, while Owens anchors the ever shifting theme.
The second disc opens with Mingus introducing Hobart Dotson and the performance of "The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster," a 10-minute octet piece that features Mingus at the piano in counter to stratospheric bluesy trumpet and Richmond’s hard brushes on cymbals as metronomic pacing. As the others blend in the composition becomes increasingly complex, spanning tender to cacophonous.
The full performance of "Once Upon A Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America" follows. This would later be re-titled "The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers." Like "Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too," the composition would resurface on the brilliant Let My Children Hear Music album of a few years later. For the full performance of "Once Upon A Time .... " the group meshes astoundingly. This is one of Mingus’ most challenging, shifting and dramatic pieces. Lonnie Hillyer is especially impressive, and the leader makes note of this following the piece. Mingus moves between bass and piano and McPherson is awesome throughout.
Following an oddly chosen but rousing 3 minutes worth of "Muskrat Ramble," Mingus and company take an apparent break before returning to perform the eloquent and elegant "Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too." This features Owens’ flugelhorn and Dotson’s trumpet work, with tuba and the other horns painting a fascinating backdrop.
The closing piece, "Don’t Let It Happen Here" opens with lush piano before giving in to Hobart’s trumpet. Mingus recites over the piece, "One day they came and they took the communist and I said nothing because I was not a communist." This recital ultimately includes references to "people of the Jewish faith," the unionist, and the burning of Catholic churches and concludes, "And then one day they came and took me and I could say nothing because I was as guilty as they were for not speaking out and saying that all men have a right to freedom on any land .... " It is an emotive piece that evokes at least contemplation, if not tears. Musically, it rocks, with Richmond laying down a hard rhythm, Mingus offering "oh yeahs" and the horns rocking mightily.
Charles Mingus was one of the giants of jazz. He was also one of a very small handful of legitimate geniuses who brought their imprint to the music. This is one of the standout re-issues of the past decade.