Charles Mingus – Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)
Demonstrates everything that everyone loves about Charles Mingus. 1. There’s the ambition – the title track, a tone-poem, about the evolution of man (pithecanthropus erectus is the former name of the more commonly known homo erectus) as “he goes out to rule the world…divided into four movements: (1) evolution, (2) superiority complex, (3) decline and (4) destruction”, already merging classical ideas with jazz, and only on his debut album. And broadly, how he pushes/ liberates his fellow musicians by asking them to learn by ear instead of a more traditional, structured manner. 2. There’s the sheer volume of sound – from the chaotic sections of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” to the “sound effects” in the first two songs – more on that later – making it seem like there’s a lot more than five people playing in the room. 3. Finally, there’s the thick, unmistakable, inimitable bass-lines throughout. The specifics: how the saxophones of the title track range from ominous to pompous (both like a suitably toned down version of the James Bond theme), to strutting down the streets in calm fashion to drunken swagger. There’s “Profile to Jackie,” the loveliest and shortest track on the album, which has Jackie McLean stretching his saxophone towards infinite with the help of Mal Waldron’s piano arpeggios as the twinkling of approving stars. And speaking of Waldron, love his little absurd romp at the end of the transition of “Love Chant” (near the 4-minute mark).
Of course, when people talk about the album, they always talk about the sound effects. The “whistling” that you hear throughout “Pithecathropus Erectus” is actually the scream of a saxophone, and likewise, “A Foggy Day” is also done through manipulated saxophones. Cool, huh! How much you like these two songs, and by extension, Pithecanthropus Erectus, depends on how much you like the sound effects. They are intrusive, and I don’t blame anyone for thinking that they ruin the songs they intrude. Me, I find them to be evocative and indicative of the things that Mingus would go on to do in his later career. On “A Foggy Day,” I hear trolleys picking up people on city infrastructures that weren’t built with them in consideration, the trolleys, that is – crossing guards blowing whistles for safety; I hear un-pretentious cafes full of people; I hear families struggling to keep up with their energetic children.
Charles Mingus – Mingus Plays Piano (1964)
A few people think this is underrated. This being Mingus, it’s overrated if anything, and I’m sure a lot more people have heard this one but haven’t heard a single note from a Jaki Byard album, who could play circles around Mingus (just compare both covers of “Memories of You”, and while we’re at it, compare Mingus’ cover of “Body and Soul” to Thelonious Monk, who also does it solo). Hell, Mingus even fucking quotes Byard’s solo on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’s third track for “Myself When I Am Real” at the 1:22 mark. (That aside, the opener’s the best track: check out the section that starts at 1:44 of the opener, where Mingus’ left hand plays a sprightly little figure and his right hand slams down on a single note before a descending melody. The section is begging for drums to come in, but Mingus surprisingly handles it himself.) Mingus’s main talents: moving around a lot of pieces, and bass-playing. This album: piano. Played erratically in keeping with Mingus’ style (ie. how he slams the same chord in the climaxes of both “Roland Kirk’s Message” and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue”, which he’ll remake later in his career), but the erraticism doesn’t allow him to wring much emotion (if any) from the softer sections (ie. “Meditations for Moses” is only noticeable for its choppy theme, that somehow manages to sound like a mariachi acoustic player at times). Nothing memorable: just because someone can play piano doesn’t mean they should play piano.