Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

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The soundtrack to a great night out.

There’s an important distinction there, in case you thought that such a descriptor could apply to most jazz albums – it doesn’t. Those jazz albums are the soundtracks to night outs – John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things is a soundtrack for sipping on fine liquor in a classy lounge (the type that plays jazz), Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way is a soundtrack for you to look for all the constellations that exist without knowing what any of them actually look like or are located, John Zorn’s Naked City is a soundtrack when you’re blazing through the lit-up city looking for the man who murdered your wife. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady? I reiterate – a great night out. You’re with everyone you love, you’re doing the things you love and you’re loving the things you do.

Solo Dancer

0:00 – 6:20 – We find ourselves in a strip club. Yeah, I’m not lying to you – it’s not a coincidence that all these song titles have the word “Dancer” in it. “Stop! Look! Sinner ladies!” And you shouldn’t have qualms about where you are – it’s not one of the gross joints where you ought to pack a bottle of Purell with you. Charles Mingus is hosting this shindig, and he’s one classy motherfucker, so he brought you to a classy motherfucking strip club. The type where you can wear your favorite shirt without worrying about glitter never coming off it and the one where they pay people to sit in the washrooms to hand you paper towels in case you weren’t capable yourself. The bleating horns are the beat; the women on stage/saxophone move between each of those points and the splattering of drums keeps the motion alive. As strip clubs do, the women get prettier (or maybe you just get more intoxicated) as the night progresses, captured in the fact that the music becomes fuller and faster (or at least seems to). After each time a crescendo reaches its apex, the music dies down a bit – the DJ announces the ladies are switching, and your party takes full advantage of it to step out for a quick smoke break (ie. the 2:53 mark). You pull out your pack and Charles Mingus pulls out his pipe. Classy motherfucker.

Duet Solo Dancers

0:00 – 2:00 The group relocates to a bar down the street; Charles Mingus, being a classy motherfucker and all, has decided he’s had it up to here (he points to his head) of paying $15 per beer (he always tips).

Much has been made of Charles Mingus’ “personal exorcism” (Steve Huey, allmusic) with regards to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. In the liner notes to the album, Charles Mingus has his psychologist, Dr. Edmund Pollock, review the album, who protested, stating “my interest in music was only average and without any technical background.” Most jazz reviews I’ve come across spend time focussing on the players within The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and frankly, I don’t really care who’s playing what and what their names are. I’m generalizing of course – Dannie Richmond’s drumming on “Solo Dancer” moves from quiet restraint to crashing brilliance and Jaki Byard’s piano on “Group Dancers” deserves praise (and I’ll praise it soon enough) but this is a Charles Mingus album. He’s directing the players to do what he wants.

Because of a lack of knowledge of what’s going on, Dr. Pollock is forced to describe The Black Saint in terms of emotion – and he succeeds for the most part. I disagree that The Black Saint is “a plea to change the evil in men and to end hatred,” but I will agree with his preceding description, “[Mingus] feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves. He cannot accept that he is alone, all by himself; he wants to love and be loved. His music is a call for acceptance, respect, love, understanding, fellowship, freedom.” That’s first seen in the opening two minutes of “Duet Solo Dancers” – on the way to the bar, while the rest of your friends are up ahead, Charles Mingus pulls you back to tell you about the shit he’s been dealing with – coming out of a breakup with “the sinner lady.” As you guys reach the bar, you ask him if he’s okay. “I’m Charles Mingus,” he says. “I’m a classy motherfucker,” he adds, with such conviction that you believe that’s what his initials stood for.

2:00 – 6:25 – The new bar is hopping, and you enter it with your arms outstretched to let the music hit you full-force (I love you THIS much, said Little Nutbrown Hare). The first two minutes here is probably my favorite climax on the album. It starts in a slow, drunken swagger from the call-and-response back bone of the trombone and saxophone (with other instruments for good measure), before the music finally settles into a noticeable rhythm with the horns bleating out in beautiful syncopation as the thing gets faster and faster.

Group Dancers

0:00 – 1:35 – Brought on by alcohol, one of your friends admits that she’s been thinking of hurting herself. You and your friend turn around to face her, and you open your mouth to say something, but snap it shut because you’re too intoxicated to say something helpful but sober enough to know it. Your friend grabs her and leads her away from the bar, and you can see them embracing in your peripheral vision. Earlier that evening, one of your friends decided to leap into the arms of another – she’s regretting it now, and trying to rationalize her cheating to another friend. Charles Mingus sits next to you and points out that everybody is acting really sad. You nod, not wanting to reveal that you feel sad too. But Mingus is visibly upset by this – he wants to have a good night, and more, he wants everyone to have a good night. Jaki Byard’s intro is 90-some seconds’ worth of piano notes looking to cling to something/someone. And I’m frankly angry at Charles Mingus for not leaving Byard to his devices. The intrusions (especially the high-pitched one at the 0:50 mark) sound like a siren blazing through the streets at lethal speeds, a literal slap-in-the-face during the album’s most quiet minute.

An aside: this part of the story actually did happen once in the summer of ’12 and all the characters therein are based on real people (Charles Mingus plays the part of my friend). I was bent on having the night of my life, but halfway through, the atmosphere visibly changed. Alcohol has a way of bringing about a clarity for the worst of memories when you’re least expecting it. Because of that night, actually, I refuse to drink steam whistles, despite it being my favorite beer at one point – protip: blame the beer and don’t blame yourself.

1:35 – 2:53 – The song changes. Colors move across the room. The flutes that essentially carry this section of the song by themselves is both the most danceable part of the album and, in higher praise, is easily the best riff to be featured on a Charles Mingus album. The one on “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” gave it a good run for its money, but yeah, this one. The people embracing each other suddenly stop, give each other a knowing look, and start boogieing their asses off.

2:53 – 7:00 – One of your friends tells you guys that he’s got a couple of friends in the really cool bar across the street, so you guys finish your drinks and leave. As the bouncer bids you good night (Charles Mingus tips his hat), and the door closes behind you, the flute riff cuts out unexpectedly. As you approach the new bar, your friend (the saxophonist) announces that what’s about to happen is going to blow your mind and opens the door and BOOM! You’re in a Spanish bar, flamenco guitar and mariachi horns hitting you full-on in the face (the 3:00 mark). Seriously, how many people were expecting that in a jazz album?

Trio and Group Dancers / Singer Solos and Group Dance / Group and Solo Dance

Charles Mingus has this brilliant idea of going back to every bar you’ve been to that evening and having one drink at each. That’s basically the gist of the second side – it’s my least favorite track on the album, though I’ll recognize that it does nicely tie everything together into a cohesive whole.

0:00 – 6:35 – Essentially “Group Dancers” all over again. To my dismay, we’re retreated to those sirens (0:10, 4:40). The flamenco guitar and mariachi horns are expanded upon; instead of a neat style shift on “Group Dancers,” they now serve as a bed for the saxophone. The flutes make their return (5:00, 5:50). Following each of those riffs is my favorite part of the closing suite – bridges made by nothing besides Charles Mingus alone at the piano – I would’ve liked more parts like this, Mr. Mingus, to give me breathing room. My favourite moment is at the 5:24 mark, where he plays chords along the entire length of the piano, traveling in opposite directions of a formula patterns.

6:35 – 17:20 – I’m guessing the sudden shift from piano to saxophone marks the second part of the suite, “Singer Solos and Group Dance,” where we’re retreated to a long section of crescendos, moments of tension relief and then bigger crescendos, rinse and repeat – until the whole band sounds like they’ve gone completely insane.

17: 20 – 18:39 – A reprise of “Solo Dancer.” We find ourselves back in the same strip club we started in, because Charles Mingus understands that in some way or other, every great night out ought to end with a naked lady.

“Throw all other records of mine away except maybe one other […] This is the first time the company I have recorded with set out to help me give you, my audience, a clear picture of my musical ideas without that studio rush feeling.”
-Charles Mingus/Classy Motherfucker

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