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Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy - Cornell 1964 Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Blue Note
reviewer:    K L Poore

ImageWhen I was oh-so-young I inherited a stereo console that was as long as my bed, and just as high, which made it perfect. I crammed that sucker against the wall, pushed my bed up against it and voilà, I was sleeping on a fully functional Motorola stereo system every night.

I tell you this because it was there, laying in the dark, with ears tuned to a stereo the size of a small car, that I first discovered the thrill, the joy, the confused bliss that is the music of Charles Mingus. It was music that was much too beautiful, much too complex, and sometimes too angry for my naive and developing mind, but I was captivated and have remained so to this day.

Cornell 1964 is a recently discovered treasure (thanks again to the tireless efforts of Mingus’ widow, Sue) that is an unvarnished view into what many consider to be his creative high point and, in turn, his palpable genius. Recorded a few weeks before The Great Concert in Paris, Mingus’ band (which includes saxophonist Eric Dolphy, pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Dannie Richmond) swings, explodes, caresses, and eventually humbles the listener into a state of divine aural religiosity. Cornell 1964 is everything that fans wanted from the Paris concert recording but didn’t get. As a matter of fact, the Prestige three-LP set listed the first cut as “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” when in actuality it was “So Long Eric.” That’ll tell you what kind of care they put into that release. Thankfully, Blue Note gets it right, and gives this two-CD set the reverence it deserves. The unabashed joy of this concert is evident throughout this recording as the sextet cheers, laughs and whoops with delight … and the audience does the same. The band responds to this evident appreciation by giving the audience a performance that I’m certain, years later, they would tell their friends they were lucky enough to attend.
There’s no middle ground here. There’s no passive listening. This is music meant to stir both your intellect and your soul, and you must be prepared. Starting with what seems like a historical overview of jazz piano styling “AT FW You” (AT and FW are Art Tatum and Fats Waller), with perhaps a little Gershwin woven throughout, the listeners then and now are given notice that this is more than music to have a few drinks to. This is music divine in the truest sense. It is spiritual, carnal, and doesn’t beg so much as challenge the listener to actively participate.

Next up is a bass and piano duet on Mingus’ musical hero Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” that lives up to its name. It is both sophisticated and delicate, and Byard comps as Mingus gently explores the melody until at last it’s time for the entire band to join the show, and what a grand exploration it is that follows. Mingus leads a group that is as dynamic as any Miles quintet through some of the greatest and most difficult compositions his catalogue.

Starting with “Fables of Faubus,” a 30-minute barbed wire impeachment of Arkansas’s racist then-Governor, and running all the way to the closer “Jitterbug Waltz,” you are confronted with important and still relevant Third Stream music with a heart that’s much bigger and a soul more human than you’re used to hearing from your local philharmonic. Filled with theme and variation, incorporating mind blowing solos, and poking at all areas of popular song, you’ll realize that this isn’t the jazz of Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong or even Dizzy Gillespie. This is something without true classification. It is simply, and purely, music … and of the highest order.

Although there are many moments in this show that make me stop and look at my sound system as if it will be able to tell me that what I just heard is real, I’ll share four:

At the 4:21 mark of “Fables of Faubus,” Mingus drives the tempo like it’s a stallion that needs to be broken, only to let up a few bars later when Johnny Coles takes the manic reins and cools it down into a slow groove trot. Mingus was known to change tempo, and sometimes even change key, when he believed his players weren’t listening. This is a real life example where you can hear him doing it for yourself. The players are right there with him.

Clifford Jordan’s tenor sax solo in “Orange was the Color of Her Dress …” is straight out of the Lester Young school, beautiful in tone and arrangement. It’s the kind of soundtrack you can fall in love to.

“Meditations,” taken as a whole, is one of the finest jazz compositions in existence, and exhibits everything that is necessary to understand just how forward-thinking and obviously important Charles Mingus is in the world of music. With counterpoint against counterpoint, bowed bass, and each instrument playing a varied style, it is as at least as valid as any 20th Century composition, including those by Stravinsky, Ives and Ellington. When, about halfway in, it really starts swinging and Mingus encourages his musicians with a “yeah, yeah,” you’ve come face to face with jazz bliss.

If you’ve ever heard a bigger, thicker bass sound than Mingus gets on “So Long Eric” then you’ve got to write and point me in that direction, because I won’t believe it until I hear it blasting out of my sound system.

By the time you’ve reached the lushly beautiful “Jitterbug Waltz” and Eric Dolphy’s incredible flute, you can only wish you’d been in the audience at this show 43 years ago, and you realize that, beyond the years and even with Mingus’ death, you’re still in the presence of greatness. It makes me cherish all those nights “sleeping on the stereo” that was never turned off and always on the jazz station.

Maybe I can still push my bed up against. I still have it. Just like my love for the music of Charles Mingus.

The sound on Cornell 1964 is incredible considering that it came from a tape found in someone’s closet. A tape no one knew existed from a show people didn’t know happened. If we could only be this lucky all the time.

There are a few sound issues. The mix is as good as can be expected, with some of the instruments pushed back a little too far in some passages. There’s a level of tape hiss, but it was most pronounced when I did my “drive around Long Beach with my windows down” test. So now I’m not listening to Cornell 1964 in my car.

There are a few mic knocks, the most pronounced on “So Long Eric,” but overall it’s a beautiful recording that will go to the top of any Mingus fan’s music library and/or CD changer. Sue Mingus made the Paris Concert recordings listenable a few years ago with Revenge! The Legendary Paris Concerts, and now she’s given us this treasure. Maybe we are that lucky.

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