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Charles Mingus - Cornell 1964

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Artist: Charles Mingus

Album: Cornell 1964

Label: Blue Note

Review date: Jul. 23, 2007

Rescued from a storage shelf by Mingus’ widow and confoundingly unreleased until now, it’s a near certainty that Cornell 1964 will sit at or near the top of many listeners’ year-end lists as the jazz event of 2007. It’s the latest in a banner run of archival releases that includes UCLA and Complete America Sessions and is arguably the ace of the three. The tapes come from a concert several months prior to the storied sextet’s planned departure for Europe. Trumpeter Johnny Coles would fall ill shortly after their Atlantic crossing and his healthy presence here makes the music all that more valuable. The powerful tandem of Clifford Jordan and Eric Dolphy complete the frontline. Two short recitals open the set, the first featuring pianist Jaki Byard’s capricious keyboard stylings, jumping from rolling block chords to a rapid-fire finish of jaunty stride flourishes in tribute to Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Mingus handles the second piece, turning in a callus-corroding interpretation “Sophisticated Lady” with Byard dropping quiet chords in the background for color.

From there it’s a first class ticket to prolix abandon as the six men revel in the sort of sprawling performances that were the normal flight plan for the band. “Fables of Faubus”, the centerpiece of the first disc, devours just under a half hour in a headlong charge through jazz history to date. The horns drown out much of the famous Faubus-bashing banter between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, but the inequity in stereo balance is a minor foible. Coles takes an early lead, his tone incisive and clean as Jordan and Dolphy riff boisterously around him before dropping out to leave him in a rich round table with the robust pizzicato of the leader’s bull fiddle. Byard follows, blending baroque filigrees with two-fisted barrelhouse clatter and even going so far to quote “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on the fly. Richmond and Mingus take turns sparring with Jordan during the saxophonist’s blues-saturated exposition, a riotously creative solo that somehow manages to mix braggadocio with tenderness and fend off the best attempts to unseat him. Mingus makes his own politicized stab during his solo, tugging out the theme to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” amidst a cascade of double stops and flamenco strums. By the time Dolphy’s number comes up in the final minutes, the band has the audience solidly in its pocket and there are still nearly two hours of music to go!

Also notable about Cornell is the expanded nature of the songbook. Familiar pieces vie with others that only rarely made it to record in live form or, as in the case of the closing “Jitterbug Waltz”, weren’t previously represented in the discography at all. “Meditations” and “So Long Eric” comprise the two sides of the The Town Hall Concert, the album widely regarded as the band’s (sans Coles) apogee. The versions here are very nearly on par, the former featuring Dolphy’s empyrean flute and Mingus’ melancholy arco in another half hour expedition of singular ensemble solidarity while the latter parcels comparable potency into half the time through a solos-heavy blues stroll. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, a feature for Coles, is the only piece that feels like filler, its tongue-in-cheek trappings dousing much of a spark. My personal favorite of the set is the rollicking rundown of Ellington’s “Take the “A” Train” that closes the first disc. Mingus’ deep devotion to Duke was no mystery, but for some reason this particular ditty only rarely made it to record. Mingus has his own way with the changes, manhandling them with a high-density pizzicato deluge that morphs into an intimate and energetic rhythmic exchange with his soul mate Richmond. The drummer parlays the conversation into a virile solo of his own, ramping the excitement to an even greater degree in a barrage of polyrhythms. Dolphy once again brings up the rear with a garrulous bass clarinet extemporization that brings out the instrument’s comedic tonal range.

Supposedly, this wasn’t the only find uncovered by Sue Mingus’ in the search of her late husband’s archives. Releases of other performances are reportedly in the works. That welcome probability points once again to the plight of practicing jazz musicians when it comes to competing with the past. The argument that the music’s halcyon days are decades gone receives a strong degree of credence through the joyous transformative music ensconced on these two discs. What journeyman jazzman wouldn’t blanch and cower in the looming shadow of genius that was Mingus in his prime? Rest assured, that’s exactly what’s on offer here and it’s a wonderful, awe-arousing experience to gain ingress to these sounds.

By Derek Taylor

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