Friday , July 19 2024
Charles Mingus Changes Packshot

Music Reviews: A Charles Mingus Box, plus Eliza Gilkyson, Tracy Nelson, Asha Wells, and a Tribute to Badfinger’s Pete Ham

Charles Mingus is widely regarded as one of the greatest bassists in the history of jazz, but he is even better known for his compositional genius and work as a bandleader. Like Duke Ellington, to whom he has often been compared, he favored improvisation and liberally shared the spotlight with the members of his ensembles. You’ll find ample evidence of these attributes on a terrific new box set called Changes, which collects some of the recordings from the last decade of Mingus’s life.

Mingus was as prolific as he was talented, which is one reason why this box—which delivers about six hours of music on seven CDs or eight LPs—barely scratches the surface of his catalog. Subtitled The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings, it incorporates nothing from the first three decades of his career, nor does it embrace the albums he made for other labels during the ’70s. It also omits Mingus at Carnegie Hall, the live LP he released on Atlantic in 1974. That said, this anthology—which includes three bonus tracks (five in the vinyl version)—offers an excellent and wide-ranging introduction to his catalog. 

The well-annotated set opens with Mingus Moves, which he recorded in late 1973 and issued early the following year. The expanded version here includes several memorable numbers by his group’s pianist, Don Pullen (“Newcomer” and the previously unreleased “Big Alice”); trumpeter Ronald Hampton (the previously unreleased “The Call”); and tenor sax player, George Adams (the Latin-influenced “Flowers for a Lady”). The centerpiece, though, is Mingus’s own “Opus 3,” a 10-minute performance that picks up where the influential title cut from the artist’s 1956 album, Pithecanthropus Erectus, leaves off.

Next come Changes One and Changes Two, a pair of 1975 releases that Mingus recorded over just three days at the end of 1974. These essential albums, among the best of his career, include self-penned tributes to his wife (the dazzling and multifarious 17-minute “Sue’s Changes”) and his musical idol (“Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”), as well as numbers whose titles evidence the composer’s political side (“Remembering Rockefeller at Attica” and “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi U.S.A.”). 

Mingus offers new takes on a couple of his best-known compositions—“Goodbye, Porkpie Hat” and “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”—on 1977’s Three or Four Shades of Blues, while Cumbia & Jazz Fusion finds him working with a large group on the title cut and a piece that was intended for but not used in an Italian film called Todo Modo. (The CD in this box adds a previously unreleased first take of “Music for ‘Todo Modo’.”)

Charles Mingus Changes

Mingus recorded the final two albums in this collection, Me Myself an Eye and Something Like a Bird, in two days in January 1978, a year before he died from ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease). At this point, he was confined to a wheelchair and could no longer play bass, but he composed all the material and directed its performance by a large outfit that featured such luminous players as Michael and Randy Brecker, Larry Coryell, and Eddie Gomez. 

Me Myself an Eye includes the 30-minute “Three Worlds of Drums,” which emphasizes percussion and wind instruments, and “Devil Woman,” which Mingus first recorded in 1961. The other album offers “Something Like a Bird, Part One” and “Something Like a Bird, Part Two,” which, as the liner notes observe, “is in a simple 32-bar AABA form with a sudden modulation which jazz musicians enjoyed, since it suddenly went from the key of F to A-flat in the bridge and chromatically wound its way back to F for the last eight bars.” Fasten your seat belt and enjoy.

Also Noteworthy

Eliza Gilkyson--Home

Eliza GilkysonHomeFolksinger Eliza Gilkyson, whose career has now lasted more than half a century, just keeps getting better. On this exquisite latest release, she applies her gorgeous vocal work, which conveys warmth and vulnerability, to nine new original songs plus the Karla Bonoff title cut. Highlights of the album, whose songs address the importance of family and friendships, include “Sunflowers,” which imagines the wishes of a mother in war-torn Ukraine; “Witness,” which benefits from electric guitar work by Gilkyson’s brother, Tony Gilkyson (formerly of X and Lone Justice); and “Man in the Bottle,” which features the Rifters and Van Dyke Parks and references compositions by the singer’s father, the late songwriter Terry Gilkyson. Other guests include Robert Earl Keen and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who respectively duet with the singer on “How Deep” and “Sparrow.” 

Tracy Nelson--Life Don't Miss Nobody

Tracy NelsonLife Don’t Miss Nobody. Tracy Nelson, who first garnered attention in the 1960s as the lead singer of San Francisco’s Mother Earth, returns here with her first album in more than 10 years. Her soulful vocals are as potent as ever on the 13-track Life Don’t Miss Nobody, which benefits from stellar material and a star-studded list of guest performers. Among the many highlights: Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral and My Trial,” a duet with a talented young country blues singer named Jontavious Willis; Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense,” which features Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica; Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonkin’,” a bouncy duet with Willie Nelson; and the funky “I Did My Part,” a number by Naomi Neville (aka Allen Tousssaint) that features blues singer Marcia Ball and “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas.

Asha Wells--Water Words

Asha WellsWater WordsThe cover of this self-penned debut album from San Francisco Bay Area–based Asha Wells looks a lot like the one on Heart Food, the 1973 sophomore LP from the late folksinger Judee Sill. Wells shares Sill’s penchant for introspective, folk-based material but sounds more like a cross between Sade and the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler with a bit of Nick Drake thrown in, if you can imagine that. The music is consistently dreamy, sensual, and engrossing—and good enough to make you look forward to hearing whatever this young artist will do next.

Shine On--A Tribute to Pete Ham

Various artists, Shine On: A Tribute to Pete HamPete Ham—one of the many rock artists who have died at age 27, in his case by suicide—was a lead singer and prolific songwriter for the Beatles-influenced and -associated early-1970s group Badfinger. Here, some of his admirers pay tribute to his power pop.

Highlights on the two-CD, 35-track set include covers of three of Badfinger’s biggest and most infectious hits, “Day after Day” (sung by Shelby Lynne), “Baby Blue” (Mary Lou Lord), and “No Matter What” (two versions by the Speaker Wars, a band that includes Tom Petty drummer Steve Lynch).

Not everything works: Melanie’s overproduced version of “Without You”—a worldwide chart-topper for Nilsson that Ham co-wrote with Badfinger’s Tom Evans—buries her distinctive vocals under too much instrumentation, for example. There’s a lot to like among these performances, though, not to mention plenty of reminders of what a fine songwriter Ham was.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

Check Also

Joni Mitchell-Asylum Albums 76-80

Music Reviews: Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Asylum Albums (1976–1980),’ plus Little Feat, David Serby, and Steve Dawson

A box set collects four Joni Mitchell albums, plus reviews of a Little Feat reissue, David Serby, and Steve Dawson.