There is a long-standing tension in improvised music between the primacy of live performance and the permanence of recordings. When the music is so different every performance because there’s so much improvisation, the most valuable “experience” would seem to be hearing it. inhabit, in the moment. Yet because sheet music cannot capture a jazz performance, recordings are the only valid permanent representation of music. This results in some recordings becoming canonical, the official frozen-in-time version of a piece of music, even if the musicians themselves don’t go on to interpret it in the same way – just think of how Miles Davis’ “So What” kind of blue runs through our brains at a choppy mid-tempo even though the band almost always played it much faster and without the studio intro we know so well.
The groups of Charles Mingus have do not were locked into this dialectic just as much as certain artists. Mingus often re-recorded his favorite compositions (for example, there is not a single definitive “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” or “Fables of Faubus”), and some of his best recordings come from concerts, which emphasize the tunes as vehicles for interpretation that changes over time. And, with Mingus, the changing staff of his “Jazz Workshop” tended to give us a kaleidoscope of ways to hear his best tunes.
Nevertheless, Ronnie Scott’s Lost Album is distinguished by the pleasure of re-hearing the music of Mingus. It is an excellent tool to underline the scope that the Mingus approach could have. Recorded live at the famous London club in August 1972, it captures the iconic bassist, composer and bandleader both at the peak of his powers and in a moment of transition. It’s not a weak Mingus recording, exactly, but the band is partly forgettable and wouldn’t stay together for very long. But Mingus, his compositions and his conception fly away.
With his (apparently largely fictionalized) autobiography just published and a Guggenheim Fellowship bringing him to a well-deserved level of respect and recognition, Mingus was peaking as an artist at the age of 50. However, his group was changing. The brilliant group of the 1960s with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin and Jaki Byard was behind him, and the quintet with Don Pullen and George Adams had yet to be formed. He hadn’t recorded much in the late 1960s, and when Columbia Records signed him in the early 70s, it brought together Let my children hear music, a great recording but with a jazz orchestra produced by Teo Macero, not the workshop group. The result is that most of us don’t know the band that joined Ronnie Scott that summer: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones, the very young Jon Faddis on trumpet, pianist John Foster and drummer Roy Brooks. McPherson is by far the most august and experienced player, and Jones and Foster would probably consider the Mingus gig the highlight of their careers.
So what does a Mingus band like this look like? How is the group positioned? Is the music of the master still transcendent in the hands of this group? A Mingus band without Dannie Richmond? Really? The evidence needed to answer these questions, recorded by Columbia Records just a year before removing all jazz musicians from its roster other than Miles Davis, is being heard 50 years later for the first time.
The band sounds very much like a Mingus band, even a classic Mingus band. Brooks seems uniquely creative and connected to Mingus, at the height of his own considerable powers after years of drumming with the world’s best jazz musicians and gaining both fluency and creativity. It’s delightfully sloppy and loose in some places, only to close out the band at perfect pace in others. On “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues,” he works perfectly with Mingus to move the band through tempos and sentiment, snapping for eight bars, then super smooth a moment later.
The other standout, of course, is McPherson, who plays with the combination of modern jazz intelligence and deeply felt blues authenticity that a Mingus band tends to draw from players. His solo, for example, on “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues”, is played with the utmost relaxation, the lines leaning back over easy phrasing that invokes Charlie Parker but also seems to date from a time before bebop came into its own. make every player a pee. a bit frantic. He plays with more range and expansiveness on the 35-minute version of “Fables of Faubus” from this set, but is also aware of the band’s past and as a result never seems to allude to the famous sax solos. Eric Dolphy’s vocalized alto on the tune. . Rather, he stays cool for long stretches, allowing his bandmates to chat with him, even if it’s his solo – then when the band pushes him forward, rhythmically, he becomes a quick exponent of a more modern sensibility.
The rest of the sidemen here are fascinating but not exceptional, individually or collectively. Faddis is only 19, fresh out of his Dizzy Gillespie apprenticeship, and he seems most at home slamming into the upper register or laying out notes expressively, but all the connective tissue of a solo well-designed is not there yet. On “Faubus”, he is entertaining but in the manner of a comedian telling lines rather than someone telling a story. (Faddis’s comparison here to 19-year-old Wynton Marsalis with Art Blakey reveals just how completed Marsalis was so young.)
Likewise, John Foster’s pianism sounds brash and exciting but disparate. Unlike McPherson, Foster seems to be playing completely in the shadow of his famous predecessor, Jaki Byard. He uses Byard’s pseudo-stride playing whenever he can, employing crackling dissonance one moment, then pre-bop two-handed pianism the next. Listen to his “Faubus” solo (it’s the performance during the set that really exposes everyone’s best and worst side), and any number of 45-second tracks will stop you, but if you’re anything like me, you don’t know how the solo set makes no sense.
Tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones is perhaps the hardest player to crack. Jones plays his solo “Faubus” more like a pro, listening intently to the leader’s cues, tossing ideas back and forth, capable of a seemingly endless chain of interesting licks. Some of the licks seem otherworldly – meaning he sometimes converses with Mingus on “Faubus” as if he’s channeling Boots Randolph rather than Booker Ervin or Lester Young. It’s weird, but he integrates them into a fluid improvisation that has its own logic. He’s skillfully excellent, yes, but he looks like he’s visiting Mingus from a distant land, and, well, the master is kind and brilliant enough to welcome him. He didn’t last long with Mingus in the “jazz” world. Too bad in some ways, but when we hear him on the crazy and wildly open track “Mind Reader’s Convention in Milano (Aka No. 29)” we feel that his excellent saxophony is not so much at the service of feelings as at the service of production of notes.
Mingus himself is a wonder at every turn. He takes long unaccompanied solos (perhaps because he knew the full band wasn’t quite there?), and they’re masterful: free and full of form at the same time. His famous humor is in the spotlight as he pushes and pulls the rhythm section with known licks and propulsive rhythm, and he also sticks the proceedings in earnest. “Mind Reader’s Convention” uses various composing cells like railroad cars along a half-hour procession, and the Mingus/Brooks tandem keeps it gasping. Perhaps if this group had stayed together, Mingus would have been the one to get them all into shape, performing their individual vocals in concert.
Some of the other directories in this set are curious. “Noddin’ Ya Head” is a vocal feature for Foster – a vocal novelty being a not unheard of gamble in the Mingus quiver, but otherwise more of a lark than a joy. “Pops” is simply a Mingus-style version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” again with Foster on vocals, doing his best Armstrong impersonation. I mean it’s a blast and all, with Jones playing the clarinet and Faddis indulging in some New Orleans style, but only McPherson and Mingus seem to understand that this gender-playing exercise is designed to be as serious as lark. The release also contains some brief intro-outro tracks (“Ko-Ko” and “Airmail Special”) which are not good performances. Ultimately, the set is evenly split between long versions of Mingus classics and material of limited interest.
That doesn’t mean that Ronnie Scott’s Lost Album has no pleasures and no value. It’s Mingus’ centenary year, so we can spend some time on less essential material. But in a brilliant work like that of Charles Mingus, it’s more nerve than muscle or bone.