Friday, October 19, 2007

Mingus, Cornell 1964

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy
Cornell 1964
Blue Note 2 CD set

Charles Mingus has inspired the critical and scholarly attention befitting a jazz titan of his stature. Of course, when an important, but hitherto unknown recording is discovered, authors like Todd Jenkins (I Know What I Know) will have to revise their work somewhat. On hearing Cornell 1964, a newly unearthed live concert recording of the Mingus sextet with Eric Dolphy, one doubts they will mind too terribly much.

Any new recordings of Mingus with Dolphy will make fans of both artists sit up and take notice. The short-lived sextet Mingus led at Cornell is notable for artists closely associated with the bassist, like Dolphy, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond, as well as two musicians whose tenure would be much shorter—namely tenor player Clifford Jordan and trumpeter Johnny Coles.

In terms of repertoire, again it is a mixture of the recognizably Mingusian, and tunes like “Jitterbug Waltz” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” making their first appearance in the Mingus discography here. The two sets, represented on two disks, are consistently exciting, and the audio is surprisingly clear, given the fact that the source tapes were collecting dust for years before their fortunate discovery.

It is a shame this combo never recorded in a studio, as they sound remarkable compatible on Cornell. A tune like “Meditations” could be a release unto itself, clocking in at over half an hour. It is a richly-hued, far-ranging performance, taking many twists and turns, with Dolphy getting his say on flute and bass clarinet, and Jordan also taking an impressive solo.

Although Johnny Coles did tour and record with Mingus, like Jordan, he is probably not on the tip of a Mingus listener’s tongue if asked to name his classic sidemen. Again, he blends in beautifully, playing clear unison lines and offering tart but upbeat solos, as on the lilting “Irish Eyes” (it was St. Patrick’s Day after all).

In the liner notes, Gary Giddins makes the point that despite the presence of serious-as-your-life music like “Meditations” and “Fables of Faubus,” this is actually was actually a joyous session for Mingus, who took obvious pleasure in leading a band that could swing for the fences. That good vibe really shines through in Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” with Mingus vocalizing his enjoyment of Jordan’s tenor solo.

Mingus always honored his elders, and this concert was no exception. Waller was well represented with “Jitterbug” and in spirit through Byard’s feature “ATFW You,” which stood for Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Mingus’s high regard for Ellington is well established, so it is no surprise to see two selections of Ellingtonia, a solo feature for himself on “Sophisticated Lady” and a rousing rendition of “A-Train.”

Much was made of the so-called eccentricities of Mingus, but his sensitive nature is often overlooked. With a band of well attuned, empathic musicians, it was all good. Despite his troubled genius image, Mingus clearly had no problem with happy, let-the-good-times-roll music, as exemplified by Cornell. It is definitely an important discovery, sure to top year-end lists and polls.