Charles Mingus -- bass, composer; Bob Neloms - piano; Ricky Ford - tenor sax; Jack Walrath - trumpet; Dannie Richmond - drums
An irascible figure with a larger-than-life presence both on and off the bandstand, Charles Mingus was also one of the most prolific composers in jazz. In fact, his writing prowess was probably second only the great Duke Ellington in sheer scope (he wrote for trios, quintets, big bands and full orchestras through the course of his career). Mingus was also a formidable bass player with a deep tone and a penchant for stretching out on his instrument in concert, as he does on this superbly recorded 1977 performance in New Orleans with his working quintet of pianist Bob Neloms, tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, trumpeter Jack Walrath and longtime drummer Dannie Richmond.
This concert took place just a few months before the great bassist-composer was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) and a year before he would become wheelchair-bound and unable to play the bass anymore. But you'd never know it from his performance, which is full of swagger and brimming with vitality.
Mingus and his crew opened this April Fools Day set with the exhilarating, suite-like "Three or Four Shades of Blues," title track of his 1977 Atlantic album which they had just finished recorded in New York on March 29 before embarking on this trip to the Crescent City. It opens with a Bird-influenced head featuring tight, challenging unison lines between trumpet and tenor sax. Walrath turns in a bristling trumpet solo as Mingus walks insistently underneath. Neloms follows with a brief, boppish solo of his own before this first passage resolves with a wry quote from Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March." Following some harmonic stretching by Neloms, Walrath switches to muted trumpet for a Latin flavored section that soon evolves into some spirited exchanges between trumpet and tenor sax. Mingus follows with a muscular blues-tinged bass solo, underscored by drummer Richmond's supple swing and Neloms minimalist comping. Ford then launches into a lengthy and robust tenor solo over the aggressively swinging pulse before the quintet returns to the tricky head and brings the complex suite to an upbeat and unapologetically romantic conclusion by returning to that quote from "The Wedding March."
Next up is a dramatic reading of the Mingus staple "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," the bassist's melancholy homage to tenor sax icon Lester Young which had originally appeared on 1959's Mingus Ah Um and was reprised on 1977's Three or Four Shades of Blues. Ford is prominently featured here on a lengthy and passionate tenor solo. He is followed in order by Neloms, Walrath and Mingus himself, all of whom turn in expressive solos on this most frequently covered of all of the leader's compositions. Mingus' solo, in particular, is remarkable for its resounding woody tones and for the great bassist's wholly unconventional choice of notes.
Mingus concludes his New Orleans set by premiering a new extended composition, "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion," which seamlessly blends the cumbia rhythm of Columbia, South America with jazz improvisation. Originally written for the film Todo Modo, which was shot in Columbia and New York City, it was recorded by Mingus as the title track of his 1978 Atlanic release just a month prior to this concert. Walrath and Ford weave freely on top of the hypnotic cumbia groove supplied by Richmond, Mingus and Neloms, and they wail in uninhibited call-and-response fashion throughout this epic piece, building to a cacophonous flurry midway through. A couple of mood changes has the quintet shifting gears and heading into an up-tempo 4/4 swing section that features Ford in a bracing, boppish tenor solo and a more luxurious balladic section that showcases pianist Neloms. Mingus then bears down on a gutbucket bass line for an irreverent take on the traditional plantation song "Shortnin' Bread," which also has him supplying some food for thought in his sharp, politically-charged vocals. Mingus' solo here also gives a good indication of why he was considered one of the most physically imposing bassists in the history of jazz.
Born on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, Mingus grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Beginning on trombone and cello, he took up double bass in high school and studied with jazz bassist Red Callender and a former New York Philharmonic Orchestra bassist Herman Rheinschagen. Mingus worked with Barney Bigard's ensemble in 1942 and toured with Louis Armstrong big band the following year. But it wasn't until he joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1947 that he found himself in the recording studio for the first time (he's featured on his own composition "Mingus Fingers" on a Hampton recording for the Decca label).
Mingus later gained national recognition as a member of Red Norvo's trio with guitarist Tal Farlow from 1950-51. Following a move to New York City in 1952, he worked everyone from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Art Tatum and Bud Powell. He also formed his own Debut Records with Max Roach and in 1953 their label documented an historic concert at Massey Hall in Toronto with himself on bass, Roach on drums, Powell on piano, Parker on alto sax and Gillespie on trumpet. In 1953, Mingus had a brief stint in the orchestra of his hero and biggest influence, Duke Ellington (he was one of the only musicians to ever be personally fired by Duke). By the mid 1950s, he began to thrive as a composer on the strength of such acclaimed recordings as 1956's Pithecanthropus Erectus and 1957's The Clown. But it was his remarkable output in 1959, in which he released Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, that certified his place in jazz history.
A disastrous Town Hall concert in 1962 had Mingus over-reaching with an under-rehearsed band on some exceedingly difficult orchestral music (which was posthumously performed, recorded and released as Epitaph,). He experienced some triumphs through the '60s and '70s, including The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus(both in 1963), Changes One and Changes Two (both in 1974) and Three or Four Shades of Blues(1977). One of his last recordings was a collaboration with Joni Mitchell on her 1979 Asylum album, Mingus. He died on January 5, 1979, before the album was completed, at age 56. His ashes were scattered on the Ganges River in India by his widow Sue Mingus, who has tirelessly championed her husband's rich legacy with the award-winning Mingus Big Band, which continues its extended Monday night residency at The Jazz Standard in New York City. (Bill Milkowski)