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Charles Mingus takes you to school, but it was never this much fun

Music Review: Charles Mingus – Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard…Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA

One of the greatest jazz composers and players of all time, Charles Mingus prepared a year in advance to perform his new compositions at the Monterey Jazz Festival. For reasons still unclear, Mingus only got to perform three pieces, less than 30 minutes of music for what was supposed to be a 90-minute set. It wasn't until two weeks later at UCLA's Royce Hall that he got to play his complete set, which this two-disk set contains. With the exception of the audience that night, the college engineering staff that recorded it, and those lucky enough to obtain the limited edition LPs, this concert has never been heard before, until now. The performance Mingus and his band gave was a record of the struggles he usually went through when he tried to get his music heard. His belief in the art of nonconformity and his skill of improvisation are still unmatched today, and by listening to this CD you can understand why.

As the show opens, Mr. Mingus speaks to the audience and does so throughout the show. He explains, or at least tries to explain, what happened at Monterey weeks earlier and with that introduction "Meditation On Inner Peace" opens up the show. The sound of the lone tuba playing a slow thumping heartbeat rhythm leads the way as the horns weep and moan. To try to explain this piece in words is almost impossible. The best way to describe "Meditation" is it has an almost haunting affect. The track plays for almost eighteen minutes and the tuba is the only consistent sound that keeps what beat there is. The music speeds up near the end, mellows back to the tempo the tuba was keeping, then concludes with final drum crashes and Mingus kicking out key notes from the piano. It ends abruptly because as he explains, "we forgot how to end that one."

This is Charles Mingus and this is how he likes to do things. In between this track and the next, he not only explains to the audience what is going on, he schools his band members too. Unfortunately, when he speaks to the band, he doesn't speak directly into the microphone, so you will have to turn up the volume if you want to hear what he is saying to them. This happens a lot on the first part of the show (CD 1) and is most evident on the next track "Once Upon A Time, There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America" — yeah that's the full name of the track. Could you see any DJ on the radio now sitting long enough to even announce that?

The track starts off but ends after eight seconds because the band doesn't remember how to play it. So Mingus lets them know. They try to start off again and within two minutes he stops the show. It sounds as if he takes the players who can't seem to get their parts right, off the stage to go over it with them, leaving the other band members to play a tune called "Ode to Bird and Dizzy". As the title says, this arrangement was made in homage to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s a structured jumble of rhythm with the drums keeping the beat as the bass booms away and the horns tell the story, one playing like Dizzy, one playing like Bird. The jam goes on until Mingus calls back the full octet to play out "They Trespass The Land of The Sacred Sioux" which concludes disk one.

The second part of the show (CD 2) has fewer interruptions and more of the art Mingus created. It starts out with "The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster," which is another 10-minute jam featuring the styles of Art Tatum and Freddie Webster. Again, the non-conformist style of freeform jazz comes as the horns top each other while the rest of the band trots along at a simple pace.

It is followed by a complete, after three starts, version of "Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Company Called Old America". The drums and the horns build up a tempo that slowly rises one note on top of another, then is leveled out to be more of a big band slow dance, then a jumble of jazzy licks, or so it felt and that's where the magic of Mingus enters. Halfway through the tune, the uncontrolled chaos drops in and then disappears as the slow dance tries to return. By now the tempo is turned up and the slow dance has become a quickstep, then back to slow. All the time, Mingus is calling out words and making grunts and whoops. This song is a total roller coaster ride, with him screaming out as if he is in the front seat, because he is).

"Muskrat Ramble" is Mingus' dedication to New Orleans Dixieland Rag and gives you the feel of walking down Bourbon Street. Hobart Dobson comes back to help play "Don't Be Afraid, The Clowns Are Afraid Too," which has a mild tone to it compared to tracks that were played before. The foundation of this jam is set again in the drums and bass line, while the horns get the chance to let loose every so often. The harmony is incredible when the brass is together following the path the drums and bass are laying down. When Dobson's trumpet solos, that's another amazing sound that grabs you by the ear and holds on with its soothing calls. Mingus plays his piano halfway through, which gives the tune a smoky jazz bar feel.

"Don't Let It Happen Here" closes out the show. A soft piano leads off with a single trumpet weeping in the back. Mingus speaks and on this, we all need to listen. He only says something like five sentences, but they are powerful — just as the jam that follows. All the energy and passion the band has had inside erupts into a feeding frenzy of screaming horns, dancing drums, and cries of love from the bandleader. Again you are on a ride that takes off for the stars then slows down to smell the roses, all within 11 minutes. At the end, Mingus speaks again and with his finishing thoughts, the crowd roars with admiration.

What I think is so special about this CD, is with all its false starts and missteps this is what Charles Mingus strived for. Not for perfection, but for innovation, improvisation, and most of all emotion. This is how Mingus played and it is who he was. Mingus was a man ahead of his time, and this CD can testify to that.

Written by Fumo Verde

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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