Pity the poor bassist. All too often in the conventional jazz ensemble, the bassist, a vital part of any rhythm section worthy of the name, gets little chance to stand out. There may be a solo here and there, but by and large the bassist is there to provide a solid foundation for the front men to build upon. And for many a bass player that is enough, but not everyone. There are those bassists whose work belongs in the spotlight; there are those with a creative energy that demands attention. That list might be short, but there is one name that would clearly belong at the top: Charles Mingus.
Whether as leader or sideman, Mingus has been involved in some of the finest jazz recordings of the 20th century. A serious composer, his original work forms not merely an impressive jazz canon, but a truly impressive musical canon. Mingus was a musician to be reckoned with.
The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus, recorded in 1954 and newly reissued on a remastered CD by Bethlehem Records, may not be the best of his work as a whole, but it is finely crafted throughout and equal to his best in many spots. In a sense, there is no such thing as mediocre Mingus. “Jazzical” is the Dr. Seuss-like term Mingus coined for the music on this album which he felt combined old and new classical forms and old and new jazz forms.
The bassist leads a sextet featuring John LaPorta (clarinet, alto sax), Teo Macero (tenor and baritone saxes), Thad Jones (trumpet), Jackson Wiley (cello) and Clem DeRosa (drums). Mingus does double duty. Calling himself a “frustrated pianist” in his liner notes, he shows what he can do with the ivories.
Of the album’s seven tracks, two are standards. Mingus explains that his arrangement of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is meant to “show that it is easy to listen to several lines at one time.” It makes for some very intricate interaction between the musicians. The classic “Stormy Weather” as arranged by LaPorta shows off Jones’ trumpet work to great advantage.
“Minor Intrusion,” a Mingus original, is the class of the album. Not only does it give each member of the ensemble the opportunity to shine, but it takes the traditional blues feeling in a whole new direction. Close your eyes and you can clearly hear it as the score of a noir movie. At almost 10 and a half minutes, it is the longest piece on the album. Mingus says “Thrice Upon a Theme,” his other composition “consists of two movements,” the second developing the theme of the first.
“Four Hands” is a collaborative effort with LaPorta which features fine solo efforts by both he on alto and Macero on tenor. The disc closes with LaPorta’s “The Spur of the Moment,” another piece with solo opportunities for all members of the ensemble.
Reading some of Mingus’s notes about the music, it would be easy to dismiss it as overly cerebral. That would be a mistake. Certainly he is concerned with its technical content, but listen to the music and it is clear that technical considerations never get in the way of spontaneity and emotional truth.