Charles Mingus – @ Bremen 1964 & 1975
(Sunnyside SSC1570. CD Review by Olie Brice)
A fascinating look at two of Charles Mingus’ greatest bands, recorded by the same radio station in the same town but 11 years apart. This four-CD set brings together Radio Bremen’s capturing of the mid-’60s sextet featuring Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard and Dannie Richmond, with the mid-’70s quintet of George Adams, Jack Walrath, Don Pullen and the longest standing member of Mingus’s groups, Dannie Richmond again on drums.
The ’60s group must go down in history as one of the all-time great jazz bands, with all six members virtuosic innovators on their instruments, deeply rooted in the traditional while simultaneously pushing at its boundaries.
The group played an extended tour of Europe in April 1964, most of which was recorded and has been available in various releases, bootlegs, and films – although this appears to be the first legal release of the Bremen recording. A strong argument could be made for needing to hear all of it – the inventiveness of the musicians means that even playing more-or-less the same set every night they constantly find new and exciting ways through the material, with the astonishing propulsion and flexibility of Mingus and Richmond’s hookup spurring the soloists on to ever greater heights.
For all Mingus’s reputation as a composer and double bassist, I’m not sure this rhythm section quite gets the credit they are due as stylistic innovators – the way they switch in-and-out of double time, into 6/8, back to slow 4/4, speed up and slow down, always with a ferocious drive and swing. They were developing much of the same language the great Miles Davis Quintet was exploring simultaneously but with a very different attitude and feel, and arguably even more freedom and flexibility. And Eric Dolphy in particular, only a couple of months before his tragic and avoidable death through racist negligence, is on fire – one of the most exciting improvisers of all time at the height of his powers. His extended bass clarinet feature on Fables of Faubus is worth the cost of the box-set by itself.
The ’70s recording is just as exciting. While there is a lot of live material from the earlier group, to my knowledge this is the first live recording of the band that made the two classic albums Changes One and Changes Two. The vital Mingus/Richmond interplay is still at the heart of the music, with Don Pullen a worthy heir to Jaki Byard’s piano stool, bringing a similar blend of blues and surrealism. The horn section by this point doesn’t contain a genius of the scale of Eric Dolphy, but George Adams and Jack Walrath are wonderfully suited to Mingus’s music, again equally at home playing free or drawing on the whole history of the music. The repertoire is almost entirely drawn from the Changes albums, with the exception of the old classic Fables of Faubus, the only tune repeated over the course of this box-set.
One a personal level, I’ve spent a lot more time listening to the ’60s band – one of my very favourite groups – than to the ’70s band so the July 1975 set is the real revelation of the box for me. Over the course of nearly two hours, they cover a huge amount of musical territory and have loads of room to stretch out.
Mingus’s wonderful ability to write small group arrangements that somehow sit in the Ellingtonian big band lineage is apparent on an epic 33-minute Sue’s Changes. Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love has a series of particularly gorgeous solos from both horns and piano, before Mingus delivers the final word on the subject in his own solo. A ferociously fast ‘Cherokee’ is almost reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City, Remember Rockefeller at Attica retains that intensity, and the final piece Devil Blues does everything the title suggests, with George Adams intense and powerful on both tenor and vocals. The only slight disappointment with the 1975 recording is that like many recordings of the time the double bass sounds like it was recorded directly from the pick-up. The rest of the instruments are really well captured, but the nasal and slightly distorted bass tone is a shame – still, the incredible playing more than makes up for it.
Charles Mingus was of course one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and across the four CDs the breadth of his writing is well represented. The anger and intensity of his challenges to white supremacy – in tunes such as Fables of Faubus and Free Cell Block F, ‘tis Nazi USA – is as relevant and timely now as it was when they were written. This box-set is a wonderful document of a creative genius at two of his most intense periods.
UK Distributor for Charles Mingus Bremen 1964 & 1975 is Proper Music