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Music Review: Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um

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Occasionally a classic album is reissued in such extraordinary fashion that it sets a standard by which all others are judged. The Legacy Edition of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um is one of those rare accomplishments. Recently released to coincide with the landmark album's 50th anniversary, the team behind this package have created arguably the single best starting point for anyone new to Mingus' work. For those who already own the album, the upgrade is worth the expense.

Right off the bat, the most important thing about this two disc edition is that it contains two complete albums in their entirety. Not only the 1959 landmark Mingus Ah Um, but also its 1960 follow up Mingus Dynasty. Both albums have been reissued previously, restoring edits that were made in their original vinyl form. Here we have the complete versions of the nine Mingus Ah Um tracks, along with three previously issued bonus tracks. Three alternate takes, for "Bird Calls," "Better Git In Your Soul," and "Jelly Roll," are included as well. As far as I know, these are the first time these alternates have been issued.

Mingus Dynasty, also issued with many tracks edited for the original vinyl, has been previously reissued in complete form as well. In this edition, the original complete album is present along with a previously issued bonus track. Not regarded in quite the same class as Ah Um, Dynasty remains a fascinating work. Several tracks on Dynasty are full blown orchestrated epics, such as "Far Wells, Mill Valley," going beyond the large scale jazz ensemble employed throughout the rest of the album. Coupled in the same package, the two recordings make an unbeatable package.

Mingus Ah Um is a joyful work, mixing gospel, blues, and jazz in such an idiosyncratic way that each track manages to surprise the listener even after repeated listening. The arrangements are off-kilter and unpredictable, with each musician pushing one another to new creative heights of expression. The music presented in this package, with a small army a great musicians providing a big, boisterous sound, is fun to listen to and shouldn't be a stretch for newcomers to jazz. I think that's worth pointing out, because the word 'jazz' seems to scare off so many people.

When dealing with jazz music, there is often a general perception that the listener must already be steeped in knowledge of the genre in order to appreciate it. Many people accustomed to pop and rock music are intimidated by the complexities of jazz, as if a music degree is a prerequisite to enjoying the music. While the genre is extremely varied, with outre off-shoots such as free jazz and experiments in atonality, straight-ahead jazz is in fact quite accessible to any music fan.

The Legacy Edition not only features truly outstanding remastered audio, but also a 23-page booklet detailing the making of the albums. The focus, understandably, is on Mingus Ah Um but the producers of this set have gone far beyond the call of duty by including a PDF booklet on disc two. Easily accessed simply by putting disc 2 in a CD-ROM drive, original liner notes, a bunch of photos, previously unpublished session notes, and more are at the listener's disposal. In other words, a comprehensive history and analysis of these recordings is included along with the most important part: the music itself. For any student of jazz or any longtime affectionado, Charles Mingus' legacy has been done proud by this spectacular reissue.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."
  • I have the Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings set, and that comes with a bonus CD containing the three alternate versions you mentioned here, along with Song With Orange, Diane, and New Now Know How. According to the sleeve notes, only the take of Diane is previously unissued, although Song With Orange was not previously available on CD in unedited form. The other four takes were all apparently released in 1993. Of course, I don’t know whether these are the same alternative takes as on the set you’re reviewing…

    Nice review, btw.