This is big music, not just in the size of the band but in the music's emotional power. This is music with movements, like Mozart or Beethoven or any of the finest classical composers, music that moves you like the best jazz combos, music that draws your emotions to the surface like the most sultry torch-songs, music that lives on outside time and touches everyone who listens. If classical music had not ossified at the end of the Nineteenth Century, leaving only a few so-called modern composers to move it forward, this is what that music would have become.
In 1965, I was listening to new music by Charles Mingus on long-playing vinyl records released by specialized jazz labels. For me, the music was new and wonderful. I revelled in this innovative, powerful jazz that seemed to be moving the music forward. This new release of music written by Mingus and recorded in a live 1965 concert takes me back to that time but also allows me the perspective of hindsight. It's through this prism of time that I'm now hearing this music.
After forty-some years, I can hear the influence of Mingus in the music of so many other great artists, not just in jazz but across the spectrum of popular and more academic styles. More exciting is that today the music sounds just as fresh and exciting as ever, and every bit as innovative as it did so long ago. This refreshing music may continue to influence composers and performers for many decades to come, not just in America but around the world.
Although this release includes only 11 tracks of music, 19 total tracks if you count the bits of speech between the music, it gives the listener almost 90 minutes by one of America's finest composers and his band. To listen is to be entranced by the beauty and power of this music as it carries the listener through highs and lows and from mood to mood. It's electrifying and it's elequent and it speaks to the world with the voice of America.
Like Ellington, Copland, Grofé, and only a few others, Charles Mingus has discovered the heart of America and set it to music that transcends time and space. This is the new music of the American spirit, the transition through the Twentieth Century, into the Twenty-First, and into the future. Jazz music will never be the same again.
While much and perhaps all of this music has a large, almost classical feel behind the jazz surface, two numbers near the end of the set stand out as different from the rest. Amid all the contemporary Mingus compositions, with "Muskrat Ramble," written in 1926 by Ray Gilbert and Edward "Kid" Ory, the band swings into Dixieland mode as it shuffles toward the end of the set. Like a flashback in a movie, "Muskrat Ramble" fits right in and brings added depth and history to this otherwise modern set. The final song is a spoken word adaptation of "First they came…," a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the failure of German intellectuals to oppose the Nazis. Mingus adapts this poem to address racism and other problems Americans face, giving a heartfelt spoken performance of "Don't Let It Happen Here" over appropriately moving musical backing.
Besides Charles Mingus on bass and piano, this concert features Hobart Dotson and Lonnie Hilyer on trumpet, Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn and trumpet, Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, Julius Watkins on french horn, Howard Johnson on tuba, and Danny Richmond on drums. Among them all, there's not a performance that is less than excellent.
Anyone who would like to travel to the epicentre of modern jazz music, to the point where American music's past takes on a new polish and becomes its own future, should definitely give this concert a listen. Without this recording, no collection of jazz music is complete.
This album's jewel-case insert includes delightful, very informative forward notes by Sue Mingus, further notes by Fred Cohen and Sue Mingus, and various other notes, illustrations and commentaries, including an excerpt from the autobiographical book Beneath the Underdog, written by Mingus. More than just an interesting read, these notes bring a certain historical perspective to the life and music of Charles Mingus.