For the 50th anniversary of its recording—or, less compellingly, the 45th anniversary of its belated release—RCA have reissued Tijuana Moods. This isn’t exactly the first time you’ve had the opportunity to hear this excellent music on CD, but this set is freshly remastered and includes a bonus track that’s seen release only once before. The other five cuts have been repackaged endlessly and confusingly, what with the multiple iterations of New Tijuana Moods, which is merely the original album plus four alternate takes. As recently as 2001, Charles Mingus fanatics were treated to a two-CD version of the record plump full of excerpts, false starts, and even more alt-takes. At one disc lasting 47 minutes, this latest version of Tijuana Moods is admittedly lean, but how often do you play the alternate versions of anything, anyway? And, come on, false starts? I’d just as soon listen to Mingus drink coffee.
Better yet, I’d rather hear the great bassist and master jazz composer blow his blues away through a wild set of finely crafted tunes and ecstatic improvisations. This is music that tears itself away from the confines of its medium, lifting off that flat silver disc and into blurts and swirls of hot orange sound. This is music with feeling, because Mingus was feeling it all back in 1957. Reeling from the fresh sting of divorce, he sought to drown himself in the hedonism of Tijuana, Mexico. While listening, I like to mentally screen the lawless portrait of that town as envisioned by Orson Welles in his 1958 film noir classic, Touch of Evil. Henry Mancini scored that movie, but Mingus could’ve handled the job just as well. He plunged himself into that alternate reality and returned with its feelings and flavors tucked away in that magical kingdom beneath his pork pie hat.
“Dizzy Moods” are what Mingus wishes for us to experience first, likely mirroring the beginning of his own sojourn to that crazy Baja California border town. Actually, it’s a fairly subdued number, reflecting more the be-bop of one Mr. Gillespie, rather than the disorientation that comes from cultural immersion. The mood here is generally relaxed, allowing Mingus’s three fine horn players to stretch out and interact in lovely ways. Trumpeter Clarence (aka, Gene) Shaw and sax player Curtis Porter passed briefly through the Mingus band, but contribute quite ably. Shaw does well to not imitate Dizzy on the opening cut named for the trumpet legend. The biggest name in the horn trio is Jimmy Knepper, who played with Mingus on many of his great recordings (and jammed with some cat named Miles, too).
If “Dizzy Moods” is a nice, but relatively uneventful, drive through town during siesta, then “Ysabel’s Table Dance” shows just how crazy the scene can get once you step indoors. The cut is an epic journey in three parts, beginning with the clicking castanets of an actual Ysabel, one Ms. Morel, who contributes handclaps and vocals later on. Meanwhile, pianist Bill Triglia lays down an impressive impersonation of an acoustic guitar strumming a Spanish theme. And then the trademark Mingus insanity kicks in, with the horn section boiling into a frenzy, their improvised lines criss-crossing and melding together in some glorious noise, backed by the ever-present Dannie Richmond and accented by the occasional “ha!” and “ay!” from Morel. The song then switches gears, sliding into a lengthy section of straightforward bop, and then back into castanet-fueled madness, which finally calms and fades into the night … with a final “bomp-bomp” to say adios!
Mingus then takes us for a quick spin through a “Tijuana Gift Shop”. Our tour guide is leading us at a fairly brisk clip, so the red, white, and green tchotchkes sometimes appear in a blur (or is that the tequila?), but we’re grooving on a mighty good time, just drinking in the scenery (well, that and the tequila!). Back out on the street “Los Mariachis” are warming up their instruments, allowing long lines of yellow tones to drift up from their horns before they really start to blow. A few minutes in, the whole band comes together for a delightfully cheesy Mexican theme you’ll recognize (although I couldn’t name it). At just over ten minutes this track is more like a mash-up of ideas, but all of them are good ones and flow together well. The band slows down, the band speeds up, they simmer, they bash and blow. Mingus is at the helm, folks, so it’s alllll good.
The original album’s closing number, “Flamingo”, is a restrained and lovely piece, with some angular melodies that unfold so slowly that they turn to butter by the time they reach your ears. This disc’s closer, “A Colloquial Dream” (also known as “Scenes in the City”) doesn’t really fit with the rest of Tijuana Moods. It’s more urban, and, thanks to the jazz-praising narration of Lonnie Elder, more beat in feel, contrasting sharply with the south-of-the-border themes from the album proper. The music was recorded by the same sextet at the same sessions, so that element lends continuity to the sound. Likewise, the nearly eleven-minute cut goes through the same kinds of mood swings as “Ysabel’s Table Dance” and “Los Mariachis”. It is impressive, too, how well Mingus uses the same group of musicians to communicate the differences between two equally hectic atmospheres. On the first five cuts, we are caught in the waves of mayhem that occur, while, in “A Colloquial Dream”, the craziness of the outside world pounds against the walls and blares its horns in staccato blurts from the street below. It’s a strong number, and its presence on the album is interesting in an academic sort of way, but I could live without its presence on this CD. Then again, I could live without most bonus material. The best songs are usually on the original album.
Tijuana Moods was most certainly an original, and it remains vibrant and enthralling 45 (or 50) years later. In 1957, when these sessions were recorded, Mingus was just stepping into his own, on his way to becoming a legend. By the time the album was released in 1962, he was toward the tail end of his greatest period of productivity. (He faded in the mid-‘60s, then briefly returned to form a decade later.) Regardless of its place amidst his classic era, Tijuana Moods remains one of his very best statements, nearly equal to masterpieces like Mingus Ah Um and Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Despite the many versions of this album already on the market, this newly remastered and sparingly adorned edition is the best Tijuana Moods yet.