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Charles Mingus - In Paris

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Artist: Charles Mingus

Album: In Paris

Label: Sunnyside

Review date: Jun. 5, 2007

Home to artists like Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Paris-based America label cultivated a reputation as a repository of socially conscious free jazz. As such, many consider the pair of albums Charles Mingus waxed for the imprint something of an anomaly in its catalog. The purple prose of the original LP liner notes even took vaguely apologetic pains to authenticate Mingus' ties to the roster. As if his age and fealty to older jazz forms in some way precluded his ability to also subvert and reinvent them. Anyone versed in Mingus’ music hardly needs such handholding or reassurance as to his cachet as one of the progenitors of so-called “Fire Music.” He was politically minded from his musical beginnings and this august session taped at the start of the ’70s fits right in line with the preoccupation. He usually eschewed the abrasive obviousness favored by some of his freer progeny in favor of a scathing wit communicated with orchestral loquacity.

The septet assembled for the In Paris studio sessions constituted a familiar crew, the product of Mingus' hedge-betting bid at a public comeback after several self-imposed years on the jazz periphery. Pianist Jaki Byard, a comrade since the dawn of the previous decade and Dannie Richmond, a musical soul mate from even earlier, were the ringers. Trumpeter Eddie Preston and saxophonists Charles McPherson and Bobby Jones were comparatively newer recruits, but all had a clear grasp of their employer’s mercurial moods and perfectionist impulses.

Mingus capitalized on the four sides of vinyl to create expansive renditions of several songbook favorites, inserting a few shorter pieces as way stations to replenish the band’s energies between. Meant as a warm-up piece, his arrangement of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” masterfully shod the pastured warhorse with a new set of shoes. Across a terse four minutes, the horns glide in mellifluous streaks as Mingus ambles down the middle. His sausage-thick fingers and superlative technique seem slowed; the demanding double stops and flamenco strums largely absent and replaced by a less daring attack and girth aided by amplification. Richmond, on the other hand, sounds as magnificent as ever. I can think of few drummers who can hit with such force and yet completely avoid the excesses of bombast. His polyrhythms reach symphonic scope, pressing and challenging the band without capsizing it on the thrilling rendering of "Reincarnation of a Lovebird."

Somewhat of an interstitial exercise, "Love is a Dangerous Necessity" moves from dark spaciousness to swinging blues and features a soliloquy by Preston's powerful brass prior to an abrupt end. "Blue Bird" balloons to 18 minutes as a molasses-paced blues that affords both Preston and Byard space test their improvisational faculties in detail. The pianist is in exemplary form, shaping split second commentary that keeps things slightly off kilter without resorting to intemperate dissonance. A latter day reading of "Pithecanthropus Erectus" is similarly inspired and rises through a series of emotional crescendos to a raucous cyclone-speed finale. A second disc stocked with fragmentary false starts and rehearsals contains an aural logbook of Mingus’ creative process, but yields little in terms of replay value compared to the finished product of the first disc. It’s there that lies the true treasure, depicting as it does Mingus, the wolverine in winter; his creative teeth and claws still sharp, but the legendary capriciousness of his temperament assuaged by the relief of a long recording hiatus ended.

By Derek Taylor

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