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Charles Mingus - The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-65

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Artist: Charles Mingus

Album: The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-65

Label: Mosaic Select

Review date: Oct. 30, 2012

**Listen to selections from The Jazz Workshop Concerts at NPR Music**

Few composers combined fact, legend and talent during their time on this earth as turbulently as Charles Mingus. Those wishing to understand this man of staggering genius and perseverance must also grapple with busted lights in club ceilings and the busted chops of his comrades in art. On one level, Mingus was — and the continual recounting of his all-inclusive personality insures that he remains — larger than life, but after all the violence and beauty is added up, we are left with one of the most human portraits imaginable of a soul in struggle and triumph. More than any Mingus set I’ve heard, The Jazz Workshop Concerts captures the various complexities on which Mingus thrived and which tore him apart.

As I understand it, the Jazz Workshop was as much a philosophy as an ensemble, necessitating the constant exploration and reconfiguration of whatever music Mingus handed to his musicians. A good portion of the set’s success is in its presentation of live performances in a concentrated chronological space, allowing those reconfigurations to be heard in context. The seven discs span the 16 months from April 1964 through September of 1965. In the booklet notes, Sue Mingus and Brian Priestly discuss the concerns and projects that were coming to a point of culmination, realized or not, during this protracted period. Mingus was still smarting from the strange and disastrous 1962 Town Hall concert, at which he had attempted to record portions of the epic large-ensemble work we now know as Epitaph. His April 1964 return to the venue, the first of the concerts presented here and taking up the first and second discs, finds him in collaboration with what might have been his most sympathetic group, the sextet including Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan on winds, the underappreciated Johnny Coles on trumpet, Jaki Byard in the piano chair, and Danny Richmond (the one constant in these performances) on drums. Mingus would take this group to Europe that same month for a series of concerts, and we can hear their Concertgebouw date on the third and fourth discs. Unfortunately, partly due to Dolphy’s death in July, this group would not last to take part in Mingus’s huge triumph at the Monterey Jazz Festival the following September, occupying the fifth disc. A year later, at the same festival and almost to the day, the scene was very different, with scheduling problems causing a much smaller audience and a vastly reduced set time, and we now get to hear the mere half-hour’s worth of frustrated musical vision on the sixth disc. The box set ends resiliently with a May 1965 concert in Minneapolis, during which Mingus denounces major labels, in effect biting the hand that was not feeding him what he’d earned.

The announcement is integral to the set’s conception. All of the recordings on offer were released or, in the case of the vast majority of them, meant to be released on the composer’s own label, Charles Mingus Enterprises, beginning in the summer of 1964 by Charles and Sue, who he would eventually marry. This was not the first time Mingus had attempted such a venture, but Debut, the company he’d begun with drummer Max Roach, had folded long before. Two of the albums released by the short-lived Charles Mingus Enterprises were only half-concerts, and the other music never saw official release due to financial constraints. This has now been remedied, and in The Jazz Workshop Concerts, we are given complete versions of the 1964 Town Hall concert and the 1965 Minneapolis performance. The Monterey 1965 recording, long fabled to exist, is now making its first complete appearance on disc. All of the material has been lovingly restored by Malcolm Addey, a Mosaic mainstay whose work is consistently fantastic.

And what can be said of the music that has not already been said? It mirrors the sociopolitical and spiritual events of the time in a way that’s almost uncanny. What began with the politically charged Candid releases of 1960, chronicled in an earlier Mosaic set, comes to some sort of fruition on The Jazz Workshop Concerts. Obvious homage is paid in “Parkeriana” with literal references to bebop tunes and in “Fables of Faubus” with other sorts of nationalistic quotations, both of which near or exceed the half-hour mark in these performances. Never one to embrace wholesale the “New Thing” freedoms spreading through New York, Mingus nevertheless embraced freedom while remaining allegiant to the Ellingtonian melodies and orchestrations he held so dear. While Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor were forsaking meter, Mingus expanded it, switching it up with the rapid-fire precision of a cinematographer.

The set allows extraordinary possibilities for multiple version comparisons, but my favorite performance remains Monterey 1964. All involved lament some pretty hideous distortion on the original tapes, but despite everything, the music comes through with staggering energy and commitment. Just listen to the way the group tears through “Meditations on Integration,” a piece written for Eric Dolphy. Mingus’s sextet, retaining Byard and Richmond but including Lonnie Hillyer on trumpet and saxophonists Charles McPherson and John Handy, is augmented by six other musicians, including Mingus’ bass teacher, Red Callender. What a moment for the bassist as his own past, present and future join forces in such a positive setting. The bowed bass solo that opens the piece is exquisite. The way the ensemble negotiates the meter switches and heavily accented passages that define them is a wonder to hear. I’ll leave any further analysis to Brian Priestley, whose liner notes are as detailed and informed as might be expected from a scholar of his stature.

The years following the Monterey 1965 set that closes out The Jazz Workshop Concerts were the darkest in Mingus’s life — eviction, institutionalization and despair filled the next several years — but he would eventually rally in the early 1970s with an excellent run of albums, beginning with Let My Children Hear Music. Mingus’s music is nothing if not hopeful; hope pervades every gesture, as well as the act of committing those gestures to paper and tape. For those with the inclination to listen, this collection will foster a better understanding of this man’s passions, the music they birthed, and the flawed society that could neither completely support nor contain it.

By Marc Medwin

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