The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, June 22, 2007
“Since the lights are down low and we shouldn’t change position…”

If Charles Mingus was hard work, both as human being and bandleader, then to a large extent he had to be. While his small group records remain a brilliant and unsurpassed testimony to the variety and flexibility he was able to bring to his music with resources limited in number but inexhaustible in inspiration, his large-scale compositions remain an unfulfillable difficulty. It’s hardly his fault that this was the case; denied proper time and finances to realise his complex compositions – and no jazz music has ever been tougher to perform or improvise upon at the turn of the dime on which Mingus so frequently had to stand – the records which do exist are for the most part inevitably erratic, inexact in execution and sometimes in intent, under-rehearsed and under-realised. When given the treatment he deserved – as with the untouchable Impulse! 1963 duo of The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, and the opulent 1971 Columbia album Let My Children Hear Music – the difference is more than palpable. But even in those cases Mingus’ music was not always easy to realise, and Black Saint and Let My Children in particular owe much to creative use of tape-splicing, studio edits and overdubbing; in 1963 this was considered a near-heresy in the context of jazz, which was supposedly all about inspiration and artistry in the here and now. Yet Black Saint never sounds anything less than urgent, human and bloodily, and sometimes ecstatically, so. In addition Mingus was afforded the aid of outside arrangers – Bob Hammer on Black Saint, and Sy Johnson and Alan Raph who did a miraculous job disentangling the multitudinous webs of melody and rhythm which comprised the compositions on Let My Children. These are finished, realised works.

Whereas the limited edition Music Written For Monterey, 1965: Not Heard…Played In Its Entirety, At UCLA double vinyl album looks and sounds like a samizdat, something unofficial, something incurably real; in contrast to the colourful riots of the covers of his Atlantic, Columbia and Impulse! releases, here we see an indistinct, blurred monochrome (and largely dark) mid-distance shot of Mingus, alone on stage, playing his bass, head bowed in deep concentration. It looks like the cover of a punk record, or of a hastily xeroxed Situationist communiqué. It was released by Mingus, independently, and was only available via mail order in an extremely limited edition (extremely limited because by 1966 Mingus was temporarily out of both critical and commercial favour and hard times were about to dig their heels in hard). Even my father, exceptionally resourceful when it came to tracking down hard-to-find records, never managed to claim a copy. The only thing either of us ever heard from it was a tantalising segment which the late Charles Fox played on his Radio 3 programme Jazz Today, following Mingus’ death in early 1979; the false starts to “Once Upon A Time, There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America,” directed by an increasingly frustrated Mingus, who promptly dismissed half of his eight-piece band to “figure this thing out” and instead set the remaining quartet of trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, altoist Charles McPherson and drummer Dannie Richmond to work on a frenetic “Ode To Bird And Dizzy,” a compilation of bebop’s greatest hits attacked at near-inhuman speed which still sounds ecstatically draining. And since Capitol had wiped the master tapes a few years previously, any chance of hearing anything more was remote, and infuriating, even though two of its compositions – the aforementioned “Holding Corporation,” retitled “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” and “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” – were subsequently reworked and recorded for Let My Children Hear Music, with most of the original players still present within that record’s variously sprawling line-ups.

But the performance has reappeared, remastered from a pristine vinyl original, on two CDs. If I mention false starts and band dismissals it will not be difficult to realise that this was not a common or garden “concert”; frustrated by his band being crammed onto an overfed menu of artists before an indifferent audience at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival, where he had proposed to premiere some new compositions but eventually had to come off after twenty or so minutes, Mingus brought the group to UCLA the following week – 25 September 1965 – and billed the performance as one of his workshops, i.e. not a “finished” concert but an open rehearsal. Reluctant to let any shred of realness flee the work, he insisted on releasing the concert whole, false starts, off-mike announcements, imperfect sound balance and all – something which no major record company would have tolerated, either then or now; after all, the painful memory of the 1962 Town Hall Concert, billed as a workshop but promoted (without his knowledge) as a bona fide concert, and which redefined chaos in the least productive of ways, was still very fresh in his troubled mind.

The instrumentation is not obvious. To the basic working Hillyer/McPherson/Richmond quartet Mingus added four brass players; Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn and lead trumpet, Hobart Dotson, also on trumpet, and the French horn/tuba tag team of Julius Watkins and Howard Johnson. Mingus himself alternated freely between bass and comping at the piano (and thus Johnson’s presence is crucial, since he frequently has to assume the bass line and act as the “bass player”). The absence of a trombone is conspicuous; no doubt guilt over his treatment of Jimmy Knepper was still galling him.

But, much more importantly, and despite the general lightheartedness of Mingus’ stage patter, the music is largely as grim as the cover. There was not much merriment in the order of “Better Git Hit In Your Soul” or “Hog Callin’ Blues” here, but then 1965 was not the merriest of times for Mingus’ people, and his music of this period both reflects and refracts that. The opening “Meditation On Inner Peace,” for instance, is a slowly burning threnody, its eighteen-minute pulse provided by the double heartbeat of Johnson’s tuba and Richmond’s floor tom while Mingus plays a mournful, near-Jewish lament on his bowed bass. Soon afterwards Owens’ Milesian flugelhorn enters to state the main melody, and then the other horns make their entrance one by one, encompassing solemn solos by McPherson, Watkins and Dotson, engaging in dialogues with Mingus’ continuously prodding arco. After thirteen or so minutes the tempo picks up, led by Richmond, and we get a Black Saint-style accelerando to a brief but frantic collective improvisation before the music settles back into its original state of suspended tension. But then, from 16:13 onwards, Richmond suddenly starts firing blanks of bullets from his drumkit, and the piece abruptly ends with some crashing, discordant piano flurries from Mingus. Following applause he then resumes his bowed bass line to provide the piece with its coda (the intention seems to have been to splice it to the original performance, but its warts have been left untouched).

Then the messy “Holding Corporation” attempts and the aforementioned “Ode To Bird And Dizzy,” the latter of which seems to spark electricity directly back into the event. The full octet then resumes their positions to lead to the quiet torture of the ballad “They Trespass The Land Of The Sacred Sioux,” all slow-moving Gil Evans mid-range brass chordalities whose reverie is broken by Watkins’ French horn cavalry calls, McPherson’s increasingly tormented alto solo over an unresolved and agitated four-bar stop-start loop and the final, sadly held note on Owens’ flugelhorn over distant piano; the battle already lost.

In the performance’s first half the playing is tentative, not quite formed, still slightly frightened, but in the second half (i.e. the second CD) things slowly catch fire. Firstly, “The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster” is a damaged, nocturnal blues cycle through which Dotson’s commanding trumpet drifts like an irretrievable spectre; this resolves into a characteristic Mingus ballad form but then, unexpectedly, the music suddenly speeds up to demented hard bop as Webern might have imagined it, before just as rapidly returning to balladry. Throughout, Dotson keeps his composure and constructs an eloquently hurting soliloquy. At its close, Mingus ruefully considers whether he should have started the concert with this piece, so good did it turn out to be.

Then Mingus muses for some time about missed chances and opportunities, speaks of the terrible realisation, too late in life, that “…all of a sudden you find yourself trapped by yourself but you blame it on other people. That’s a weird way of thinking.” And then he essays “Holding Corporation” for the third time – and this time he’s lucky. More ragged, but also more passionate, than the Let My Children take, and despite its initial motivic fluffs by tuba and flugelhorn, the piece then explodes, in part due to Richmond’s forceful and relevant drumming and in other part to Lonnie Hillyer’s phenomenal extended trumpet solo. By now, Mingus is excitedly yelling “Love!” at both, roaring out vocal melodies for the band to pick up, and the music, after its painful genesis, has finally gained a real momentum and the long Hillyer/Mingus trumpet/piano duet which climaxes the piece achieves a tangible catharsis. Immensely and audibly relieved, Mingus cues the band into a rumbustuous reading of Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble” with Johnson happily soloing away on tuba, and you can immediately tell that the band are able, at long last, to breathe.

After briefly retreating backstage to discuss “a financial matter,” the band return for two final numbers (apparently the actual closing number was Mingus’ infamously confounding rearrangement of “I Can’t Get Started,” but this recording has not survived). “The Clown’s Afraid Too,” with its notorious line of ten simultaneous melodies, sounds surprisingly relaxed (and is half the speed of the Let My Children version), despite Dotson’s startling, spaced out high note introduction (which Mingus loved so much he scored it and gave the line to lead trumpeter Snooky Young to play in 1971, Dotson by that time having self-destructed, leaving a widow and children); a mellow stumble of a tune and again featuring Johnson’s comparatively subdued tuba as its main solo voice (and certainly none of the electronic manipulation and berserk free playing we find on the Let My Children take), though the various melodic and harmonic strands featured in the piece continue to remind me of a crossword puzzle anagram of “All The Things You Are.”

Lastly we come to what is by far the record’s most chilling track, “Don’t Let It Happen Here,” framed by Mingus reciting the famous poem by Protestant anti-Nazi campaigner Pastor Niemoller (“One day they came for the Communists, and I said nothing” etc.) over deathly chills of fanfaring brass. The words “I charge you with genocide, the same as I” and its variants put the warning squarely in the 1965 of burnings, marches and proclamations, and the cover’s KEEP OUT level of unwelcoming darkness (or blackness) underlines this. Following a brief and startling muezzin wail lament from Mingus, the piece then launches into a sternly uptempo bimelodic gallop, sometimes slowing down, at other times screaming with noise, but perspectivised by the militant flugelhorn/percussion duet between Owens and Richmond, following which Mingus returns with his warning over a glinting chorus of horns and disturbed piano, chewing on the words “genocide” and “equal” as militantly as the Archie Shepp of “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm.” No, it is not easy music; it will not bound up to you and lick your face with eagerness. Even though it is now on general release forty years too late, the music remains remote; you have to seek it out, find it and establish ways of penetrating and understanding the soul which created it. It is frequently a shambles of missed beats and introductions – but when the art emerges, proud and unforgiving, the life lived is understood far, far more clearly.

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