New Collection Catches Jazz Bassist Charles Mingus 'Live at Montreux 1975'

Mar 9, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 12:22 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Late in 1974, jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus recorded his albums "Changes One" and "Two" with a new quintet. The following July, they were caught live at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival. A recording of that concert is out.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FREE CELL BLOCK F, 'TIS NAZI USA (LIVE)")

BIANCULLI: Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, calls the quintet one of Mingus' most explosive bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FREE CELL BLOCK F, 'TIS NAZI USA (LIVE)")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charles Mingus' composition "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi USA" from his quintet's "Live At Montreux In 1975," now out on two CDs. The recorded sound isn't brilliant, taken from a concert video which has been out on DVD awhile. You can hear the buzz of Mingus' bass amp during quiet passages. And the incomplete program is just barely long enough to require that second CD. And yet it's a great look at one of Mingus' most dynamic bands, one he'd assembled over a couple of years. Last to join was trumpeter Jack Walrath, who'd stick with Mingus from then on, always attentive to the shape of his melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FREE CELL BLOCK F, 'TIS NAZI USA (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: Mingus might walk a tightrope between form and explosive content, and this band really exploited that tension. The younger Mingus occasionally sang hoarsely expressive vocal blues. In 1975, saxophonist George Adams sang Gatemouth Brown's lyric to "Devil Blues" like Mingus' unbridled id.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "DEVIL BLUES (LIVE)")

GEORGE ADAMS: (Singing) I meet a girl every now and then who makes me want to live like other men, yeah. I said, I meet a girl every now and then who makes want to live like other men, yeah. Deep down inside, I know it's time to settle old drifter. Ri-i-ight.

WHITEHEAD: Charles Mingus' "Live At Montreux 1975" is a great showcase for the band's main provocateur, its spectacular pianist. Don Pullen shifts seamlessly between polite and percussive modes, between tinkling melodies and lightning streaks across the keyboard, threading it all into one continuous statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FREE CELL BLOCK F, 'TIS NAZI USA (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: Mingus once scolded Don Pullen for dropping a tune's form altogether, but the leader's general policy was, the soloist can do what they want as long as they play my melodies right. Charles Mingus was a master of long-form jazz composition. And all the players do right by his sometimes tender, sometimes playful melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SUE'S CHANGES (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: This is from a half-hour version of "Sue's Changes."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SUE'S CHANGES (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: Mingus himself was a relentlessly swinging bass player, and drummer Dannie Richmond was his favorite rhythm partner. The sparks really fly when the band's swinging and rambunctious and rhythm and blues tendencies converge everything at once in a glorious and highly focused onslaught.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITEHEAD: After that outbreak, Mingus reasserts control of his band's band, inviting up guest trumpeter Benny Bailey and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. They join the quintet for a couple of tunes, including a romp on "Take the 'A' Train" where Mingus and Mulligan fall into a bass and baritone duet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "TAKE THE 'A' TRAIN (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: Charles Mingus' classic '70s quintet worked a lot but only lasted about a year. First Don Pullen, and then George Adams moved on to form their own quartet with Dannie Richmond. That drummer would also keep working with trumpeter Jack Walrath after Mingus died in 1979. The 1975 Mingus quintet might sound combative, but the players forged enduring partnerships.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "TAKE THE 'A' TRAIN (LIVE)")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Charles Mingus - "Live At Montreux 1975." Coming up, a review of "A Wrinkle In Time," the new film directed by Ava DuVernay based on the classic children's book. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.