Charles Mingus – Oh Yeah

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Likely Charles Mingus’ most overrated.

Charles Mingus’ thick bass and unmistakable tone was – as much as John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics – such a distinctive sound, it commanded your attention and it fucked your girlfriend. On Oh Yeah, he doesn’t play bass: instead, he plays piano and sings (!!!!!), giving bass duties to Doug Watkins. Of course, Mingus’ bass wasn’t exactly the point of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady either, but there was so much going on in that one that you’d hardly notice. This one only gets crazy on “Hog Callin’ Blues”, “Ecclusiastics” and “Passions of a Man”, less than half of the album, so you do notice. Here’s Popmatteres’ Eric Klinger: “Oh Yeah,” though, just rocks. While the spontaneous composition of jazz is still there, it also has some heavy R&B coursing through its DNA. You hear it right away with “Hog Calling Blues” and it barely lets up at all. It didn’t mean to, but it meets rock listeners where they live, and still takes them further into the music if they so choose.” Of course, that’s always been the case with Charles Mingus: his love of blues, riotous playing, erratic compositions, and on this one, hollering that was supposed to have some semblance of soul, made it easy for him to get with the rock critics, and this one’s reputation is held aloft because it’s one of his most rock-like albums.

That’s not necessarily, a problem – I don’t deny my background for rock music. But what is a problem is that most of this just doesn’t fly. Down Beat’s Harvey Pekar wrote this one off in a quick review, lambasting Charles Mingus’ singing which Mingus famously responded with this: “My efforts at blues singing were not meant to challenge such diverse masters as Joe Turner, Ray Charles or Big Bill Broonzy, and I don’t think their singing was meant as a challenge to each other or to me. No one could sing my blues but me (if you must call it singing), just as no one could holler for you if I decide to punch you in your mouth.” But methinks Pekar was onto something because Charles Mingus’ singing almost fails both the prayer of “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” (what a title!) and “Eat That Chicken.” On the latter, he seems at odds with the rest of the band; his intrusions sound like he’s in the throes of satyriasis, while the rest of the band play like the song’s about a chicken and not a woman (see the 2:55-mark onwards, where Charles Mingus yells “OH YEAH” every two seconds to detract from the amicable saxophone solo).

Moreover, I get absolutely nothing from “Hog Calling Blues.” Not only does the main theme borrow from “Haitian Fight Song”/”II B.S.”, both better songs, it doesn’t help that – and it pains me to say this – the forever-underrated Rahsaan Roland Kirk invents a few instruments called the manzello and stritch and shronks them throughout the entire song and the result is as annoying as Mingus’ singing on “Eat That Chicken”. (It pains me to say it because Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s erratic jazz makes him the most kindred spirit to Mingus, such that the pairing should’ve been something much more special than this.) And the experiment of “Passions of a Man” (which Kirk plays flute in) is more interesting than good, though the overdubs look ahead to Mingus’ magnum opus (and some of the odder, cartoon-like sounds seem to have been internalized by John Zorn for his own opus).

Which leaves us with three tracks: “Devil Woman,” “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” and “Ecclusiastics.” Mingus sings again on the calmer “Devil Woman,” but his singing is both better because it’s informed by sadness and longing, and because it’s used less intrusively, only serving to bookend the track. The breakneck speed of “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am,” served by the Watkins’ nimble bass playing and, surprisingly, Charles Mingus’ colorful piano playing (his chords in the intro are at once, odd, sprightly, and in full attack mode) is an easy highlight. And “Ecclusiastics” is the best song on the package, with its false start (the theme sounds like a slower version of “Tennessee Waltz”) before Mingus’ erratic compositional skills that we’ve all but missed on most of this record (except for the singing, which I won’t miss) finally comes out to play – the structure and dynamics keep shifting and leave you guessing as to where the song will go next.

But that’s 3 out of 7 songs that I see myself going back to, so bottom line: there’s half-a-dozen better Charles Mingus albums than this one, and about a dozen better Rahsaan Roland Kirk ones – if not more.

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4 responses to “Charles Mingus – Oh Yeah

  1. I can’t decide if I want to hear this or not. Kind of like a car accident, curiosity makes you have a look, but you know you should just get out of emergency services’ way.

    Oh who am I kidding? If I saw it cheap, I’d still go for it. More Mingus is good by me. 🙂

    • Immediately after writing, I contemplated if I were too harsh. I read that the “Eat My Chicken” – what I perceived was the worst track on the album – was a tribute to Fats Waller. Which makes me understand it more, I s’pose. But it doesn’t mean I need to like it more… :/

      • Second-guessing yourself never helps if you’ve gone with your gut. Perhaps years from now this record will speak to you more? It’s always worth a shot!

  2. Pingback: Jack DeJohnette – Pictures / Oneness / Sound Travels | Free City Sounds·

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