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Music: Charles Mingus 1959 Classic – “Mingus Ah Um”

In 1959, Charles Mingus was at the height of his powers– in the midst of a roll from a stream of fine music on Atlantic, he signed to Columbia and delivered his first album in early 1959, “Mingus Ah Um”. Perhaps the best album Mingus ever recorded, Mingus augments his working band (saxaphonists John Handy and Booker Ervin, pianist Horace Parlan, and drummer Dannie Richmond) with reedman Shafi Hadi and either trombonist Willie Dennis or Jimmy Knepper, and produced an album of such startling variety and briliant performance that it demands attention.


To this day, when someone curious about Mingus’ music asks me for a recommendation, without hesitation, I immediately suggest this album. From the opener, it all works– Mingus’ racing “Better Git It In Your Soul” is a gospel shout masked as a jazz piece– featuring the leader on rambling vocals, a gospel shout theme, a jaw dropping solo by Booker Ervin (under which the rest of the band claps rhythm) and just stunning and sensitive drumwork from Richmond that puts the exclamation mark on the piece– this really is about half of what Mingus has to offer as a musician. The other half comes in funereal ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, second track on the album. A tribute to departed saxophonist Lester Young, Mingus evokes raw mourning in his sax line, and Handy’s solo and Mingus’ support of it are nothing short of astonishing (check Mingus’ echo of Handy’s fluttering for evidence of this).


By the time you’ve finished these two tracks, if it’s not working for you, Mingus probably isn’t for you, and the rest of the record isn’t going to change anything.

Mind you, the rest is pretty good too, alternately energetic and explosive (“Bird Calls”) and mellow and beautiful (“Self-Portrait in Three Colors”) with at least one stunning arrangement (“Open Letter to Duke”) and another bonafide classic in “Fables of Faubus”. Composed about the then-governer of Arkansas and his segregation policies, “Fables” originally had vocals, but Columbia censored Mingus, fearing the outcome of such a move (check out “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus” on Candid for the uncensored version of the piece). The resulting piece has to rely on horns only for sarcasm and bitter exposition, which it does remarkably well, and it is full of bluesy solos, including a Mingus solo that is as biting as any vocal could be.

The reissue features pristine sound– it certainly could have been recorded yesterday, and three additional tracks that were unearthed in the ’70s. All three (particularly “Pedal Point Blues”) are fine material nad well worth having. Included in the liner notes are two essays– the original album notes and a new one, both of which are interesting reads.

“Mingus Ah Um” is one of the classics of Charles Mingus’ catalog, and is on the short list of essential jazz listening. Highly recommended.

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