I know people with vinyl records but without a record player – they simply use them in lieu of posters or paintings because some cover arts are genuinely that – art. This ain’t one of them. In fact, if you have this on your wall and invite a boy/girl back to your place and wonder why you guys didn’t get it on later that night, maybe it was the fact that you reminded them of watching It at a very young age and being forever frightened to death by clowns (and Tim Curry).
Anyway, “The Clown” is easily the single most divisive piece in Mingus’ entire discography. Me? I think it’s mostly to do with an aversion against spoken word – a style that I have no qualms with. In fact, Jean Sheppard’s use of color imagery – fitting for a clown and nowhere else, really – is extremely poignant, the shift from “He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him” from the first verse to “All those colors, all those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges, a lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue” in the final verse. So perfectly encapsulating of depression, wouldn’t you say? Furthermore, I agree with Mingus, who originally planned to have the clown committing suicide on stage to a rowdy audience who assumed that it was all part of the act, but “liked the way Jean changed the ending; it leaves more up to the listener” – the final “[His agent] William Morris sends his regrets” is a powerful line, indeed.
On the other hand, I think Sheppard’s repeated and enunciated “This was bigger than Dubuque” in the final verse is a little awkward, as well as the whole “Columbia Gem of the Ocean” bit (something that flies over my head). As for Mingus’ arrangement? The band does a good job of pretending to be a circus, and Wade Legge’s gets a couple of measures to himself at the 2:06 mark that does a good job of aurally conveying Sheppard’s “Something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began growing inside of his head.” On the other hand, sometimes the music doesn’t work; too maudlin for its own good that it’s almost comical (see, for example, the 3:09 mark). And I suppose I should mention somewhere that the clown is a metaphor for how Mingus felt of jazz musicians (“a clown who tried to please people – like most jazz musicians do – but whom nobody liked until he was dead”). So there. Mentioned.
The two songs in the middle of the album are the most traditional. And whereas “The Clown” could at least be complemented for being ambitious in its storytelling and different in its approach, the real weak link of the album is “Blue Cee,” which doesn’t do a damn thing that “Haitian Fight Song” doesn’t do better and decides to be 8 minutes’ worth of that (there’s probably all the necessary components of a catchy 3-4-minute song buried in there). On the other hand, “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” – devoted to Charlie Parker – is a goodie thanks to Shafi Hadi’s playing; love it when Dannie Richmond’s splashes punctuates the main melody (at the 2:44 mark onwards), making it more and more urgent. I also love the intro, with the band punctuating Wade Legge’s cascading piano lines; it’s around this time where Charles Mingus’ arrangements became more “out there.”
That fact is best seen in opener “Haitian Fight Song” – one of the man’s best songs. The difference between this and later songs in his discography (like “Better Git It in Your Soul” or say, the entirety of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) is that Charles Mingus – one of the best bassist in the biz, jazz or otherwise – doesn’t disappear amidst the chaos of what’s happening around him. In fact, as soon as he settles on a groove, it’s impossible to keep your foot from tapping, and that’s without mentioning his solo. And the rest of the players do the amazing thing of simultaneously buttressing Mingus’ playing while putting their own mark on the record. Listen especially, for example, to how newcomer Dannie Richmond (who’ll continue to play with Mingus for the rest of his career) tosses out these fireballing drumrolls throughout, Shadi Hafi’s soloing all rapid tempo changes (at the 5:57 mark), and Hafi and Knepper providing hooks throughout (love it when Mingus imitates Hafi directly after his own solo).