I am, for the third time, teaching a course on the music of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus for Wesleyan University’s Graduate Liberal Studies program, and as in the previous iterations, it gives me the impetus to listen to a LOT of their music, often falling back in love with things I already dug but haven’t listened to in a while. Inevitably there are some things that I keep listening to intensively well after the class is over, so I figured this time around I would make a couple Top 10 lists (stay tuned for the Monk one in the coming days) of some personal favorites.
In the case of Mingus, his work is so incredibly diverse that it was difficult to narrow down what to represent (above and beyond the difficulty based on how prolific he was). Blues, gospel, bebop, orchestral, avant-garde, completely unique hybrids thereof – I could easily make a whole list of each of these things.
So I basically made myself a limited-to-ten-songs “playlist” that covered enough chronological and stylistic ground that all (or at least most) of the things I love about Mingus are in there somewhere. So here they are, in chronological order.
1 ) “Mingus Fingers” (single) by Lionel Hampton (recorded 1947)
There is a lot of interesting early-period work by Mingus, both with his own largely ad hoc groups and as a sideman with major figures like Miles Davis and Red Norvo. This track is my go-to for hearing both how authoritative his bass work was even early on and how cutting-edge his writing already was.
2 ) “Pithecanthropus Erectus” from Pithecanthropus Erectus (recorded 1955)
I have a soft spot for Jackie McLean’s work, but it doesn’t take any nepotism to be in love with this musically and historically significant amalgam of freedom and structure. Featuring solos by Jackie, J.R. Monterose, and Mal Waldron, this is an early example of how coherent Mingus’ chaos could be – or, depending on how you look at it, how much passionate and abandon could be present in his meticulously-conceived music.
3 ) “East Coasting” from East Coasting (recorded 1957)
The first of what I’d deem Mingus’ three most inspiring working bands features the superlative trombonist Jimmy Knepper, the largely overlooked but wonderful saxophonist Shafi Hadi, and the most important collaborator of Mingus’ career (this isn’t open to debate), drummer Dannie Richmond. I find this band isn’t as often discussed as such, in part because the personnel was not entirely stable – trumpeter Clarence “Gene” Shaw, well-represented here, isn’t on all their work together, and there’s a different pianist on virtually every recording they did – Wade Legge, Bob Hammer, Bill Triglia, and the then-obscure Bill Evans, featured on this hard-swinging track. But what a vibe this band had.
4 ) “Scenes in the City” from A Modern Symposium of Poetry and Music (recorded 1957)
Speaking of a vibe, whoa. Here we hear the same group as on “East Coasting,” but with a switch in the piano chair and the addition of Melvin Stewart’s dramatic spoken word (written by playwright Lonne Elder). I can’t overstate how influential Mingus’ jazz-and-spoken word material has been to me, but I limited myself to one (sorry “The Clown” with Jean Shepherd, sorry Weary Blues album with Langston Hughes, sorry “Chill of Death”).
5 ) “Boogie Stop Shuffle” from Mingus Ah Um (recorded 1959)
It was super-hard to only include ONE track from 1959 – the Mingus Ah Um is rightly considered a Mingus landmark, as is the less-famous but brilliant Blues and Roots and these were bookended by the Jazz Portraits and Mingus Dynasty albums, all recorded that year. I often go back to this crisply driving tune for the contrasts between mysterious and bop-tastic and for the great solo work of three of his important collaborators of the era, saxophonists Booker Ervin and John Handy, and pianist Horace Parlan.
6 ) “Ecclusiastics” from Oh Yeah (recorded 1961)
I needed to get Mingus on piano and/or hollering in here somewhere, and this whole album is full of both. This spiritual-esque song never fails to make me smile, and it’s a wonderful snapshot of Mingus’ collaboration with the unique talent of the multi-woodwind genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
7 ) “Fleurette Africaine” from Money Jungle by Duke Ellington (recorded 1962)
This list is pretty heavy on tunes that are very intense and/or change vibe once or more over the course of the performance, as is pretty characteristic of Mingus. But I wanted to have at least one track that is more intimate-sounding, and this late-period composition by Duke Ellington, debatably Mingus’ greatest hero, rewards you for leaning in – I often find myself repeating this one. In addition to Duke’s piano, this one also features the drums of Max Roach, a frequent early Mingus collaborator both on the bandstand and in the realm of business.
8 ) “Track A: Solo Dancer” from Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (recorded 1963)
Choosing one track from this incredibly moving suite is somewhat arbitrary – this is among the small handful of albums that has most profoundly influenced my own approach to more “ambitious” composition projects in terms of both compositional scope and sonic texture. The opening salvo on the album features the evocative saxophone work of Charlie Mariano and Jerome Richardson.
9 ) “Fables of Faubus” from Revenge (aka Great Concert of Charles Mingus) (recorded 1964)
My first serious exposure to Mingus came not from Mingus Ah Um, but from the following year’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus album, an astounding collection for piano-less quartet featuring the great Eric Dolphy. Both of those albums feature contrasting versions of the signature Mingus political composition “Fables of Faubus.” It stands to reason that in the hands (and mouths) of Mingus’ second groundbreaking working band, the snarling vibe of the tune is expanded into something truly epic, with each solo covering more ground than one often hears on an entire tune. I am sorry to omit representation of trumpeter Johnny Coles from the sextet (he was ill, and I encourage you to check out other 1964 live recordings with Johnny present) but in his absence, Mingus, Dannie, Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and the indescribable Jaki Byard do just fine.
10 ) “Sue’s Changes” from Changes One (recorded 1974)
Speaking of epic, I’m not sure that jazz tunes get much more so than Mingus’ tribute to his wife, Sue – the “changes” (in tempo, mood, etc.) are pervasive yet organic. This features the third and last of the groundbreaking working bands I’ve referred to, with Dannie, Jack Walrath, Don Pullen, and George Adams (the latter two of whom contribute mind-blowing solos), each in their own way (like Sue herself, of course) important figures in the continued preservation and growth of the Mingus legacy.