The truth about Charles Mingus that no one seems to want to talk about is that he only has one masterpiece under his name: the obvious one. Or, y’know, to borrow someone else/Robert Christgau’s words about a different Mingus album, “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I’ve never bought Mingus as Great Jazz Genius—Important Jazz Eccentric is more like it.”
In fact, the man was so creatively exhausted after The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady that he produced no other works between that and the seventies, excluding Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. And I’m not sure it qualifies: if you’re approaching Mingus chronologically, get ready to be disappointed: Mingus’ follow-up to (and second best album after) The Black Saint ain’t an album at all, it’s a compilation of previously available tracks, just reworked with his new band (following his instruction in the liner notes of The Black Saint for listeners to throw away all his preceding records), with only “Celia” that’s an entirely new song. This album’s defendants will point out that these are the definitive versions of the songs; with most of them, I agree. But unless they’re power-walking to somewhere, I can’t see anyone picking “II B.S.” over The Clown’s “Haitian Fight Song”, especially when it loses what’s probably the most famous Mingus solo, while the odd interjections by the other members take away from the original’s solo introduction (fuck it: the new intro is rendered emotionless; the first was a fight song, this is a theme song to a fight, so it makes sense that this is the version that would be used in a car commercial). Elsewhere, they speed up “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” (from Mingus Ah Um) such that what’s probably the most famous Mingus hook sounds awkward, like it’s 4 BPM too much for everyone to handle but they tried anyway (even if the rest of the song sounds better), and I can’t say that “Theme for Lester Young” improves at all on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
All that being said, this is still a great al— compilation, and for people new to Mingus’ discography, I recommend starting here before The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. With that one, you’d have no idea about Mingus’ talents as a bassist, only as a composer, whereas Mingus et al. presents both sides of the man. And with that one, you’d have no idea about Mingus’ melodic talents, since it wasn’t concerned with melody so much as it was concerned with overwhelming the senses, whereas Mingus etc. has very easily distinguishable ones – some of the best in his discography, in fact. Only “I X Love” of the seven songs disappoints; I haven’t heard the original (“Duke’s Choice” from A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry), but it sounds like Mingus nicked the drunken sway from this and put it to better use on The Black Saint’s “Duet Solo Dancers,” so this one just seems like a 8 minute dirge of no new ideas after the fact.
Anyway, the song that’s most improved from the original is one that no one seems to talk about: closer “Hora Decubitus” (previously Blues & Roots’ “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too”). Compare, just compare how dramatically the intro sounds, even if they’re the exact same (sans drums); you can just tell that Mingus and his imaginary friends was recorded in a better studio and/or with better equipment. And that intro is pretty fantastic, with Mingus spinning a melody while spitting out intervals like a machine gun (this is exactly what I was talking about earlier, melody-wise). Anyway, most of the song remains intact, though Mingus drops the brief interpolation of “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” and the piano solo; delicious counterpoint between Mingus, the saxophones and the horns. Pianist Jaki Byard gets a solo on “II B.S.” that affirms his status as one of the most underrated pianists out there: when the whole band returns and threatens to drown him out, it’s almost like they’re saying “Err, hey Jaki? You’ve overstayed your welcome,” but the guy just keeps going all the same until they pipe down. And I wasn’t aware that trumpets – at least I think that’s a trumpet – were capable of hitting such high notes during the solo of “Celia” between 1:20 and 1:40; weird, sharp and satisfying.
Anything else? Oh yeah, reissues of Mingus and himself four more times comes with the bonus track “Freedom,” and this is one of the 5% of cases where the bonus track is worth looking for. (It doesn’t hurt that one of the greatest rock bands who know their jazz history gave it a major fistbump when they wrote that “Pyramid Song” was inspired by it.) What begins as a slave-work song (with the extremely minimalist percussion driving the spoken word intro) ends as a full-band experience: like they finally found what they were looking for.