Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mingus, Balliett and Dinosaurs In The Morning

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Mingus has never had a substantial following, and it is easy to see why: he courts only himself and his own genius. A one-man clique, he invents his own fashions and discards them when they are discovered by others. The content of his compositions is often repellent; it can be ornery, sarcastic, and bad-tempered. His own overbearing, high-tension playing pinions its listeners, often demanding more than they can give.”
- Whitney Balliett, Jazz essayist, author and critic


Whitney Balliett, the dean of Jazz writers, at least as far as I’m concerned, never explains the title of the anthology of his essays collected from The New Yorker magazine and published in 1962 by the J.B. Lippincott Company of Philadelphia and New York as Dinosaurs In The Morning.


The meaning needs to be inferred from this excerpt from the piece of the same name that gives the book its title - Dinosaurs In The Morning.


“The best thing that ever happened to Jazz - the most evanescent of all arts - is the recording machine. Without this means of preservation, the music might simply have bumbled on a while as a minor facet of American life and then vanished.”


Vanished like the dinosaurs?


No recording machine - no Jazz?


The answer is most assuredly “Yes” for without the recording machine, Jazz, “... the most evanescent of arts,” could have vanished like the dinosaurs.


Instead, we can listen to Jazz recordings in the morning while sipping our favorite beverage which, I would imagine is far better than discovering dinosaurs in the morning through our breakfast nook window!


Copies of Dinosaurs In The Morning can still be had through online booksellers in various editions for reasonable sums of money and its 41 essays make for unsurpassed reading on the subject of Jazz.


Judge for yourself; here Whitney’s narrative on bassist Charles Mingus.


© -  Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Mingus


“UNTIL 1939, when Jimmy Blanton appeared, the bass fiddle had occupied the position in jazz of a reliable tackle. It had, a decade before, replaced the tuba in the rhythm section, and its best practitioners—Pops Foster, Al Morgan, Wellman Braud, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, and John Kirby—had become adept at rigid timekeeping and at itemizing the chords of each tune. These bassists also boasted tones that could be felt and even heard in the biggest groups. But they rarely soloed, and, when they did, restricted themselves to on-the-beat statements that were mostly extensions of their ensemble playing. Blanton, who died in 1942, at the age of twenty-one, abruptly changed all this by converting the bass into a hornlike instrument that could be used both rhythmically and melodically. Since then, the bass has taken over the rhythmic burdens once carried by the pianist's left hand and by the bass drum, and it has added a new melodic voice to the ensemble. At the same time, a group of Blanton-inspired bassists have sprung up to meet these new duties, and have included such remarkable performers as Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, and Charlie Mingus.


All are first-rate accompanists and soloists, and all possess exceptional techniques. The youngest have even begun to wander toward the fenceless meadows of atonality. Chief among these bassists is Mingus, the greatest pizzicato player the instrument has had. He is also the first modern jazz musician who has successfully combined virtuosity, the revolutions brought about by Charlie Parker, and the lyricism of such pre-bebop performers as Ben Webster, the boogie-woogie pianists, and Billie Holiday.


Like many contemporary jazz musicians, Mingus is far more than an instrumentalist. He is a formidable composer-arranger and a beneficent martinet who invariably finds, hires, and trains talented but unknown men. A big, loosely packed man of thirty-eight, with a handsome face and wary, intelligent eyes, Mingus is an indefatigable iconoclast. He is a member of no movement and vociferously abhors musical cant. He denounces rude audiences to their faces. (A recent scolding, administered in a New York night club, was tape-recorded on the spot, and has been printed in an anthology of jazz pieces. It is a heartening piece of hortatory Americana.) He unabashedly points out his colleagues' shams and weaknesses in his album-liner notes or in crackling letters to magazines like Down Beat. When tongue and pen fail him, he uses his fists. Mingus compresses all this dedication into his playing, which is daring, furious, and precise. Despite the blurred tonal properties of the bass, Mingus forces a kaleidoscope of sounds from it. However, much of the time he uses a penetrating tone that recalls such men as Foster and Braud, and that is especially effective in his accompanying, where it shines through the loudest collective passages. (It sometimes shines so brightly that Mingus, in the manner of Sidney Bechet, unintentionally becomes the lead instrument.)


Mingus's supporting work is an indissoluble mixture of the rhythmic and the melodic. By seemingly playing hob with the beat— restlessly pulling it forward with double-time inserts, rapid tremolos, or staccato patterns, reining it in with whoa-babe legato figures, or jumping stoutly up and down on it—he achieves the rhythmic locomotion of drummers like Sid Catlett and Jo Jones. Yet he carefully fits these devices to each soloist, lying low when a musician is carrying his own weight, and coming forward brusquely and cheerfully to aid the lame and the halt. It is almost impossible to absorb all of Mingus at a single hearing. In addition to carrying out his rhythmic tasks, he simultaneously constructs attractive and frequently beautiful melodic lines. These may shadow a soloist, or they may be fashioned into counter-lines that either plump the soloist up or accidentally upstage him. Mingus is a dangerous man to play with.


He is also an exhilarating soloist. Because he is the sort of virtuoso who has long since transcended his instrument, his finest solos are an eloquent, seemingly disembodied music. The pizzicato bass was not designed for the timbres Mingus extracts from it. He may hit a note as if it were a piece of wood, getting a clipped thup. He may make a note reverberate or, rubbing his left hand quickly down the fingerboard, turn it into an abrasive glissando. Sometimes he fingers with the nails of his left hand, achieving a rattling sound. Or he may uncoop a string of whispered notes that barely stir the air. He will start a solo in a medium-tempo blues with a staccato, deck-clearing phrase, cut his volume in half, play an appealing blues melody that suggests the 1928 Louis Armstrong, step up his volume, line out a complex, whirring phrase that may climb and fall with a cicadalike insistency for a couple of measures, develop another plaintive a-b-c figure, improvise on it rhythmically, insert a couple of sweeping smears, and go into an arpeggio that may cover several octaves and that, along the way, will be decorated with unexpected accents.


Mingus's solos in ballad numbers are equally majestic. He often plays the first chorus almost straight, hovering behind, over, and in front of the melody—italicizing a note here, adding a few notes there, falling silent now and then to let a figure expand—and finishing up with an embossed now-listen-to-this air. There are only half a dozen jazz soloists skilled enough for such complacency.


Mingus the bassist is indivisible from Mingus the leader. He conducts with his bass, setting the tempos and emotional level of each tune with his introductory phrases, toning the ensemble up or down with his volume or simply with sharp stares, and injecting his soloists with countless c.c.s of his own energy. His methods of composition are equally dictatorial and are a fascinating variation of Duke Ellington's. Mingus has explained them in a liner note:


My present working methods use very little written material. I "write" compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the "framework" on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions. . . . Each man's particular style is taken into consideration. They are given different rows of notes to use against each chord but they choose their own notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated. In this way I can keep my own compositional flavor ... and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.


Most of his recent work can be divided into three parts—the eccentric, the lyrical, and the hot. His eccentric efforts have included experiments with poetry and prose readings and attempts to fold non-musical sounds (whistles, ferryboats docking, foghorns, and the like) into his instrumental timbres. The results have been amusing but uneasy; one tends to automatically weed out the extracurricular effects in order to get at the underlying music. The lyrical Mingus is a different matter. His best ballad-type melodies are constructed in wide, curving lines that form small, complete etudes rather than mere tunes. Their content dictates their form, which resembles the ragtime structures of Jelly Roll Morton or the miniature concertos of Duke Ellington, both of whom Mingus has learned from. But Mingus has been most successful with the blues and with gospel or church-type music. The pretensions that becloud some of his other efforts lift, leaving intense, single-minded pieces. More important than the use of different tempos and rhythms in these compositions, which repeatedly pick the music up and put it down, are their contrapuntal, semi-improvised ensembles, in which each instrument loosely follows a melodic line previously sketched out by Mingus. The results are raucous and unplanned, and they raise a brave flag for a new and genuine collective improvisation.


Mingus’s most recent records—"Mingus Ah Urn" (Columbia), "Blues & Roots" (Atlantic), and "Mingus Dynasty" (Columbia)—offer some spectacular things. Most of the compositions are by Mingus and are played by nine- or ten-piece groups (a size beyond the budgets of most of the offbeat night clubs in which Mingus generally performs), which employ his collective techniques with considerable aplomb, thus pointing a way out of the box that the big band built itself into before its decline. Mingus delivers a fireside chat on the problem in the notes to the second Columbia record:


The same big bands with four or five trumpets, four or five trombones, five or six saxophones, and a rhythm section . . . still [play] arrangements as though there were only three instruments in the band: a trumpet, a trombone, and a saxophone, with the other . . . trumpets . . . trombones . . . and saxophones there just to make the arrangement sound louder by playing harmonic support. . . . What would you call this? A big band? A loud band? A jazz band? A creative band?


I’d write for a big sound (and with fewer musicians) by thinking out the form that each instrument as an individual is going to play in relation to all the others in the composition. This would replace the old-hat system of passing the melody from section to section . . . while the trombones run through their routine of French horn chordal sounds. ... I think it's time to discard these tired arrangements and save only the big Hollywood production introduction and ending which uses a ten or more note chord. If these ten notes were used as a starting point for several melodies and finished as a linear composition—with parallel or simultaneous juxtaposed melodic thoughts—we might come up with some creative big-band jazz.


The Atlantic record provides several first-rate demonstrations of this approach. On hand with Mingus are Jackie McLean and John Handy, alto saxophones; Booker Ervin, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis, trombones; Horace Parlan or Mal Waldron, piano; and Dannie Richmond, drums. There are six numbers, all blues by Mingus. One of the best is the fast "E's Flat Ah's Flat Too." The baritone saxophone opens by itself with a choppy ostinato figure, and is joined, in madrigal fashion, by the trombones, which deliver a graceful, slightly out-of-harmony riff. The drums, bass, and piano slide into view. The trombones pursue a new melody, the baritone continues its subterranean figure, and the tenor saxophone enters, carrying still another line. Several choruses have elapsed. Then one of the alto saxophones slowly climbs into a solo above the entire ensemble, which, with all its voices spinning, becomes even more intense when Mingus starts shouting at the top of his voice, like a growl trumpet. Solos follow, giving way to the closing ensemble, which pumps off into twelve straight choruses of rough, continually evolving improvisations on the shorter opening ensemble. Near the end, Mingus starts bellowing again, and then everything abruptly grows sotto-voce. The trombones dip into a brief melodic aside, and the piece closes in a maelstrom, with each instrument heading in a different direction. New tissues of sound emerge in this number and all the others at each hearing—a shift in tempo, a subtle theme being carried far in the background by a saxophone, a riff by the trombones that is a minor variation on one used in the preceding chorus.


The Columbia records, which include eighteen numbers (all but two by Mingus) and pretty much the same personnel, are not as headlong. "Mingus Ah Um" has a couple of ballads, more blues, and, most important, generous amounts of the satire that is present in almost everything Mingus writes. This quality is most noticeable in "Fables of Faubus," which concentrates on two themes—an appealing and rather melancholy lament, and a sarcastic, smeared figure, played by the trombones in a pompous, puppet like rhythm. At one point, the two melodies—one bent-backed, the other swaggering—are played side by side; the effect is singular. Mingus's needling is more subdued in pieces on Lester Young ("Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"), Ellington ("Open Letter to Duke"), and Charlie Parker ("Bird Calls"). But it emerges again in a delightful twitting of Jelly Roll Morton, called "Jelly Roll," which manages to suggest both the lumbering aspects of Morton's piano and his gift for handsome melodies. "Mingus Dynasty" has pleasant, reverent reworkings of a couple of Ellington numbers; a somewhat attenuated selection called "Far Wells, Mill Valley,' written in three sections for piano, vibraphone, flute, four saxophones, trumpet, trombone, bass, and drums; and a fresh version of one of Mingus's gospel numbers, "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,' this one called "Slop."


Mingus has never had a substantial following, and it is easy to see why: he courts only himself and his own genius. A one-man clique, he invents his own fashions and discards them when they are discovered by others. The content of his compositions is often repellent; it can be ornery, sarcastic, and bad-tempered. His own overbearing, high-tension playing pinions its listeners, often demanding more than they can give. In happier days, Mingus's music might have caused riots.”


Here’s one that you don’t hear everyday: a video on which The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra performs Charles Mingus’ Bird Feathers.”



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