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

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

In his excellent sleevenote which threatens to make an article like this one redundant, Gary Giddins notes, “Here is the sound of Mingus elated.” In abrupt contrast to the fumblings and frustrations leading towards the final, dense triumph in his UCLA concert/workshop 18 months later, the sound of Mingus’ sextet, as recorded in concert at Cornell University in NYC in March 1964, is the “shameless joy” of something achieved. For a group which effectively lasted only six months, and in that time never once entered a recording studio, they are the most thoroughly documented of Mingus’ bands on record; every date of their subsequent European tour was recorded and many, of inevitable varying quality, have surfaced on records legal and illegal. The Cornell concert has revealed itself as something of a Holy Grail to Mingusians; the tape was discovered by Sue Mingus not that long ago and indeed for the most part contain the first public airings of several important Mingus pieces, as well as drastic revisitings of old favourites. In its combination of severe adventure and lightheaded playfulness, the Mingus sextet as heard at Cornell sounds like no other jazz in 1964, of whatever stripe; it is utterly in and of itself, as were the musicians who comprised the line-up.

In Eric Dolphy and Dannie Richmond we have the two musicians who understood Mingus’ music most deeply and instinctively; in Jaki Byard, Mingus’ most complete pianist; and there is also the opportunity to reassess two rather overlooked players who also served. Trumpeter Johnny Coles is probably best known to jazz fans for his long residency in Gil Evans’ orchestra, and still hallowed for his performance on “Sunken Treasure” from Out Of The Cool, but not much beyond that, largely because his day job was with Ray Charles. Tenorist Clifford Jordan, like Dolphy, was something of a transitional figure; not quite post-bop, only mildly dipping his toes into the waters of free, but, as Giddins points out, he gives a very solid and welcome authority to the ensemble sound as well as in his own playing. He strayed into the group almost by accident; although Dolphy had begun to work on and off with Mingus again in 1963, his multiple other commitments meant he wasn’t always there on the stand, and Mingus got into the habit of inviting guest saxophonists to sit in for him when absent, mainly old friends like Booker Ervin, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster (what I would give to hear Webster let loose on “Fables Of Faubus”!). But he took a shine to relative rookie Jordan and kept him on when Dolphy returned.

Byard is given the job of beginning the performance solo with his composition, “ATFW You,” a seamless fusion of the piano styles of Art Tatum and Fats Waller and a tune not that far removed from Mingus’ “The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster” (note the coincidence of the initials) as subsequently heard at UCLA. Then Mingus arrives to perform a slow but not solemn reading of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” accompanied only by Byard’s very discreet chording; as he gets deeper into the tune he seems to become carnal towards his bass, teasing it as his fingers occasionally scurry up to the bridge, eventually snuggling up to it, sighing “baby” and “love” as though his bass were the heart of a woman. The aim is clear; the history of the music must be understood before the music itself can be experienced, or even played.

Then without warning Mingus launches into one of the performance’s two great half-hour political setpieces. “Fables Of Faubus” is expanded harmonically and rhythmically from the 1960 Candid original but the comical anger of Mingus’ and Richmond’s vocal exchanges remains. Its solo passages alternate between straight features (or at least as straight as the constantly shifting and out-catching tempos and key changes of Mingus’ music will permit) and unaccompanied free cadenzas. Byard’s solo very cleverly tells the background story by merging “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with the spiritual “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and Chopin’s Death March, while Mingus in his solo gleefully picks his way through half a century of quotations from the Great American Songbook. Dolphy, who sticks to bass clarinet all the way through the band’s first set, is diplomatically fiery. The collective improvisation sections never once sound as if they are about to fall apart; there is a stern resolution about Mingus’ idea of freedom.

After “Faubus,” the relief is more than evident. “Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” performed here in its full band arrangement for the first time, is one of Mingus’ most sheerly gorgeous tunes, Coles melting into his half-valves as he seductively leads the ensemble; again Mingus bends into his bass, practically making love to it, and completely contented, urges on Byard in his ethereal, tempoless solo feature, and audibly grins at Dolphy – as ever, intent on not letting the ballad descend into sentimentality, the clucking keys of his bass clarinet keeping everyone else on the alert like an awkwardly beautiful Red Admiral fluttering around a candlelit dinner. Then Mingus gives the signal for the band to barnstorm its way through “Take The ‘A’ Train” at about 200 times the legal speed limit, Richmond swinging like mad, everyone up for it, as Byard, again at Mingus’ behest, launches into an elegant Harlem stride piano feature, followed by Dolphy ecstatically screaming the roof down.

“Meditations” opens the second set; at over thirty-one minutes it is the most ambitious and the least comfortable of all the pieces here. It is not quite the “Meditations” of Monterey or UCLA; it begins with a heartbreaking unison line for Dolphy’s flute and Mingus’ eloquent, almost ‘cello-like bowed bass. This floats into a passage of drifting abstraction unlike anything else in Mingus’ catalogue; a tripartite dream (Dolphy, Byard and Mingus) which even in its earnest peace carries the subtle threat of turning into a nightmare. This eventually gives way to an urgent fast tempo over which Coles and Jordan have no choice but to better themselves (Jordan is perhaps the revelation of the performance; never the best defined of saxophonists, stylistically, there is a curious high-pitched plaintiveness to his tenor which puts me in mind of an American Bobby Wellins), and Dolphy cuts the tune to brutal shreds with his bass clarinet as Byard begins to gradate to Cecil Taylor-ish percussiveness (Byard’s reputation has never quite solidified; generally and mistakenly viewed as an Everyman jazz pianist of all trades – push the bebop button, pull the freeform switch – his restlessness of approach is ideal for Mingus’ unending structural and emotional changes, and is utterly distinctive and recognisable); again and again the music verges on chaotic tumult, again and again Mingus ensures that the musicians are pulled back in time, and the piece ends on the same opening quiet disquiet, eddying between thoughts of paradise and the horrors of real.

This was clearly a cathartic performance, since the light subsequently floods the concert hall; the central message having been immaculately delivered, the band audibly relax into the easily swinging blues of “So Long Eric” (on which, typically, Dolphy isn’t featured – if there’s a fault with this performance, it’s that we don’t hear his alto at all, except in the ensemble for “So Long Eric”) – with a grand Tatum-meets-Bill-Evans pastiche of a soliloquy by Byard; though at the tune’s close, Mingus tests his players once again as he speeds up and slows down the tempo like a rebellious steam train, eventually clearing the way for a brief, closing drum assault by Richmond (and what a player he is, the Sancho Panza to Mingus’ Quixote; the faithful retainer, but very often taking the rhythmic lead in terms of increasing or lowering the intensity of the music).

Called back for an encore, Mingus suggests, as the concert was being given on the day after St Patrick’s Day, trying “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as a feature for “Johnny O’Coles…the only Irishman in the band” (to much audience laughter). The rhythm section nearly make it work as a transition into the frantic 3/4s and 6/8s of “Better Git Hit In Your Soul,” but Coles’ solo is perhaps a little too reticent and introspective, whereas the approach really required a young Lester O’Bowie to come and seize the tune by the scruff of its neck, and run with it.

The closing piece, Dolphy’s arrangement of Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (see how they have squared the circle?), ranks among the least typical of all Mingus performances. Led by Dolphy’s flute and Byard’s piano, the tune initially threatens to turn into the signature tune to a seventies BBC sitcom (Richard Briers?), but Dolphy soon discards any notion of politesse by launching into a furiously floating solo, to which Mingus immediately responds. Giving way briefly for a fine, swinging tenor solo by Jordan, Dolphy and Mingus return at the end, and Mingus’ fearless double-stopping and octave leaps indeed confirm Giddins’ assertion that “Mingus’ bass all but levitates the ensemble” as he leaps in tandem with Dolphy before a final, swift reading of the melody brings the performance to an end. Finally, sweetness and light enter Mingus’ world unconditionally. The group did not last; Dolphy left for Europe and premature death that summer (there is no indication anywhere on the Cornell performance - nor on his playing on Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure, recorded a mere three days later - that Dolphy’s is the playing of a man with just over four months to live), Coles fell ill, and Jordan also made his exit. Mingus put a new band together for that year’s Monterey festival, and eventually that band metamorphosed into the UCLA octet with its attendant snags and traps. But Mingus At Cornell captures a musician, composer and bandleader genuinely happy (he becomes so elated that he provides a virtual non-stop commentary throughout “So Long Eric,” endlessly exulting, prompting and cheerleading his players) on a rare evening for him, when everything went right.

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