[31 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Charles Mingus is, of course, one of the wilder personas jazz history has produced. The larger than life bass player refused easy definition—he thought himself, for instance, more a frustrated pianist than a bass player—and refused to fall into trends. His melding of various styles of jazz, and various styles of music and tradition within his compositions, makes him an endless fascinating study. But it’s the sheer force of his playing, and the great bands he surrounded himself with, that make Mingus a lasting, unhinged, genius of sound. He may sound overly cerebral to hear him talk about his approach to music, which he does quite a bit in the notes for The Jazz Experiments of Charlie Mingus, but the songs themselves are gutshots, all blood and bone everytime.
This 1955 collection comes as part of a set of reissues that celebrates Bethlehem Records. On top of that celebration, though, this reissue also uncovers an overlooked gem in the extensive Mingus discography. Of course, the first time Bethlehem released this it was an uncovering as well. These recordings, from 1954, had originally been released on two 10-inch records under the title Jazzical Moods by Period Records. Put together as one program, though, these pieces still connect together seamlessly, energetically. The band is simmering with intensity while also stretching out into savvy uses of space. It’s another fine example of Mingus as band leader and composer.
Opener “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is framed by the ramshackle sound of tambourines, a sound that shows up more than once on the record. It’s a loose sound, one that is a bit misleading, that suggests the songs, the “experiments”, will themselves be a bit frayed at the ends. There’s wonderful interplay between Mingus and trumpeter Thad Jones, as well as between Mingus and John LaPorta on woodwind. The song employs several melody lines, sometimes piling them on top of each, to create layers without ever creating confusion. The parts here are sometimes at odds but never out of place.
It’s a lively set-up for the more expansive, and utterly excellent, “Minor Intrusion”. The track, by Mingus’s own description, has a deeply blues feel, though it evades typical blues structure. The instruments seem to work more closely together here, rather than in opposition, joining Mingus by degrees and then expanding on and deepening the richness of his melody. The cello, played here by Jackson Wiley, feels perhaps a bit formal in comparison to the sometime’s bone-dry snap of Mingus’s bass, but it still fits the expansive sound of the track well, adding that final perfect layer.
The expansion of “Minor Instrusion” could overwhelm the much shorter “Stormy Weather”, except that the latter is too strong to hide in the shadow. The darker tones of the first two tracks seem to warm to something more sultry in John LaPorta’s arrangement, and the deliberate pace of the track makes it seem much larger than it is.
These three tracks play off each other perfectly and set up a similarly great second half. “Four Hands” is a swinging affair that might not be as notable were it not for the piano work, played by none other than Mingus, the frustrated pianist himself. As is also evidenced on the later Mingus Plays Piano, he acquits himself well on the instrument. It’s a natural extension of his personality. He seems brash on the keys, bullying notes out of them, knocking out phrasings the way he would thump them out on his bass, making melodies on the keyboard holler the way he would in studio and on stage. “Thrice Upon the Theme” is perhaps the most structurally challenging, consisting of movements that both mirror and distort each other, while the instruments bounce around in the space. Like closer, the more swinging “The Spur of the Moment”, the results are interesting, if perhaps a half-step less lively than the compositions from the first half of the album.
But The Jazz Experiments of Charlie Mingus still fascinates in its fare share of moments. It may not be one of the classics, it just misses that rarified air, but it’s an important foundation for other, better regarded records. This is a fine set through and through, one that honors a couple years before Mingus started knocking out great record after great record, from Pithecanthropus Erectus in 1957 to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady in 1963 and beyond. This stuff is early, but there’s hardly a growing pain to be heard, just the development of a genius in jazz as he comes into full possession of his many talents, eccentricities, and oversized personality and zeal.