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Music Review: Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy – Cornell 1964

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Written by Fumo Verde

Blue Note wowed me again with another previously unreleased recording of the Charles Mingus Sextet. This two CD-set contains material that, before this recording was discovered, the good folks at Blue Note thought came about a little later than it actually did. This album predates by three weeks, the Sextet’s adventure from a Town Hall Concert on April 4th through a European Tour and ending at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It also includes Eric Dolphy, who besides being a revolutionary alto sax player was the first important bass clarinet players in jazz, along with being one the first significant flute soloists. There are jazz players, there are jazz artists, and then there’s Charles Mingus. This live show at Cornell makes clear why.

The opening is the applause from the students as the band takes the stage. Jaki Byard is on the piano and he immediately charges into “ATFW You,” a tribute to Art Tatum and Fats Weller. This solo is a melody of all the old piano riffs and hooks you’ve heard in many a ragtime gangster movie. It is followed by Mingus himself in a solo of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

From there, we take the ride with the “Fables of Faubus.” This thirty-minute tune drives us on a journey as the band explodes with fury and fire, then cools down for a night on the town. Johnny Coles on trumpet and Clifford Jordan on tenor sax fly about the scales like birds of prey fighting for a meal, while all along singing in harmony. Dannie Richmond pounds out the drums to the point of exhaustion, only to have Byard save him by playing “Yankee Doodle” on the ivories. After the good old American battle theme and with a few magic strokes of the keys and some plucks of the bass, the jam starts up again. The horns come alive along with Dolphy on the bass clarinet, adding a spicy flavor to the melody. A duel comprised of tenor sax, the drums, and deep in the background, the bass clarinet rages like a squall, then disappears. We haven’t even come close to the middle of this jam and the surprises down the line are well worth waiting for.

The first disc finishes up with a seventeen-minute “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress,” which Mingus had recorded as a piano solo in ’63 but hadn’t fully developed it until what feels like right at that moment. The final song on disc one is a fifteen-minute “Take the ‘A’ Train” which re-ignites the abidance.

Disc two has just as much power and fun the first part of the show had. It also introduces us to Mingus’ “Meditations,” another half-hour jam that takes us on a tour inside the mind of this jazz author. Jazz musicians practice their whole life to sound sporadic and off the cuff, yet Mr. Mingus was born like this. His talent reached way beyond what jazz was thought to be. “Meditations” reaches in with its sad, off-key intro that slowly winds its way into a piano walk filled with the bird sounds of flutes, trumpets, and saxophones. Mingus appears to be playing his bass with bow, sounding more like a cello to my ears.

“So Long Eric” is actually a tribute to the presence of Dolphy that night, but it became a lament after his death in June of that same year. Interestingly enough, Mingus goes green as the band plays his idea of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The quick tempo and upbeat rhythm feel as if the audience is moving around in their seats. The show ends with a Mingus-style “Jitterbug Waltz” leaving the students energized and excited. Again the band explodes as the music goes wild.

This live recording is something new, and if it wasn’t for Sue Graham Mingus, we would not have been so lucky to hear this. For the ultimate jazz enthusiasts this double CD-set is worth the price of admission. To hear Charles Mingus along with the Eric Dolphy playing alongside can only be explained in one word, awesome. If you are looking for something less contemporary, just outside of mainstream jazz, then Charles Mingus is your man and this live show at Cornell in ’64 will open your eyes to a whole new idea of what jazz could be.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
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