Counterbalance: Charles Mingus' 'Oh Yeah'

Oh Lord, don't let them drop that atomic bomb on me. At least not until we've had a chance to talk about a 1962 masterpiece by composer Charles Mingus. Counterbalance delivers the jazz this week.

Charles Mingus

Oh Yeah

US Release: 1962
UK Release: 1962
Label: Atlantic

Klinger: Back when we first announced our shift away from the numerical constraints of the Great List, we both bemoaned the list's overall rock-centric nature, which left little room for other genres, including country, folk, hip-hop, and (most notably for me) jazz. Well, buddy, here's our chance. The album I've chosen to get a little more jazz into these proceedings — Charles Mingus' 1960 Atlantic release Oh Yeah — isn't considered especially canonical (it clocks in at No. 2653 on the Great List, so I would have been well into my 70s by the time we got to it). But I'm forcing you to listen to it because I think that it's one of the albums I would hand off to a rock person who wants to get into jazz but isn't sure quite how.

I'm not a fan of how we present jazz to younger audiences. We either force college kids to listen to it in chronological order, which is usually about as exciting as starting American history off with that Cotton Mather guy or making kids read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". I have nothing against early jazz, but listening to scratchy old 78s that sound like old-timey cartoon music isn't likely to fire up today’s modern youths, with their little pants and their fancy phones. The other approach is to take on the canon — Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme — and go onward from there. I adore both of those albums, but if you don't form a connection with the quietude of '59 Miles or the more esoteric '64 Coltrane, you might think that jazz is just beyond your reach.

Oh Yeah, though, just rocks. While the spontaneous composition of jazz is still there, it also has some heavy R&B coursing through its DNA. You hear it right away with "Hog Calling Blues" and it barely lets up at all. It didn't mean to, but it meets rock listeners where they live, and still takes them further into the music if they so choose. At least that's what I think when I listen to this. Are you with me, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: All the way, Klinger. My introduction to jazz came via the chronological order thanks to a jazz class I took in college. I nearly failed that course, not because I don’t like jazz, but mostly because I was a freshman and there were much more interesting things to do. I didn’t come away empty-handed though, thanks to that jazz course, I recognized that Oh Yeah was a hard bop record and I remembered, as hazy as it might have been, that I especially enjoyed listening to hard bop. Looking back now, I realize that is because hard bop shared just enough of the same genetic material as rock 'n' roll and that was just enough for the subconscious to pick up.

On the plus side, Oh Yeah isn’t the esoteric meanderings of so many other jazz records. There is a real drive to Mingus’ work, the same drive that propels much of rock 'n' roll, thanks in large part to the R&B and soul influences. I also like the bits and pieces of the big band style that weaves in and out of the record. It’s like Duke Ellington drinking whiskey and taking speed. On the flip side, this is still a jazz record and as soon as half of the "J" word comes out of your mouth, most people, including me, have already stopped paying attention. Listening to jazz is work, Klinger. And it’s not work everyone enjoys. Personally, I’ve enjoyed listening to Oh Yeah, but mostly because it feels like I’m getting to party on the clock.

Klinger: Well. While I'm very happy to hear that you're whooping it up over there with your Oh Yeah, I was bracing myself for a little more pushback here. I'm almost disappointed. Now what are we going to argue about? I guess I could take you to task about that "esoteric meanderings" statement, but I'm hopeful that that's a residual effect of having jazz presented to you as if it were an academic pursuit in the first place. And besides "Eat That Chicken" is playing right now, and literally nothing can rile me up when that song is playing.

I would maintain that once people's ears are buttered up a little more by the unhinged joy of Mingus and company, they'll start to hear that same thrill of discovery in other forms of jazz—not just the hard bop you mentioned, but also your freer forms as well. The absolutely nutty "Passions of a Man" might be a good place to start if you're considering heading down that road. On Oh Yeah, a lot of that is due as much to Rahsaan Roland Kirk as it is to Mingus. Fascinating guy, that Kirk. Blinded as a kid, Kirk not only played a bunch of instruments, including crazy ones like the stritch and manzello (and probably others that spell-check doesn't recognize) but he was also famous for playing up to three at the same time. Guys like Kirk, plus Booker Ervin and Mingus’ longtime, ever-simpatico Dannie Richmond, do indeed combine to form a Bizarro-world version of Duke Ellington's group, bringing the leader's idiosyncratic visions to fruition.

Mendelsohn: I like the record because it has life, a real energy that so many more technical jazz albums seem to lack. For all the emphasis on improvisation and free-form expression, jazz can be incredibly boring to the untrained listener. I’m not completely untrained but there are very few jazz records that I willingly take off the shelf. Thanks to your intervention, I may have found one. Did you really think I wasn’t going to like this record? Honestly? Oh Yeah finds Mingus and company mixing the soul fever that drove Otis Redding’s music and the big band flair of Duke Ellington to create an album of mixed borders where the fire of gospel music meets the iced layering of smooth jazz, resulting in a steamy concoction brought together expertly under Mingus.

I’m glad you mentioned Kirk; I spent the better part of yesterday digging through some of his solo work after finding him on this record. His sound is signature — a strong, almost reckless, yet impeccably controlled work that seems to mesh so well with what Mingus was creating.I especially like the atonal honk and squawk that Kirk fires throughout “Hog Calling Blues". It reminds me of Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. Not a huge fan of “Passions of a Man” though, but then, I also tend to skip over the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”.

Klinger: Yes! I knew when I first heard "National Anthem" that they were borrowing the feel from Mingus. It's curious to me, too, how Mingus, one of the best-regarded bass players in jazz, has turned over those duties to Doug Watkins and stuck with piano here. Check out Mingus' playing on "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am" and you hear how much his style seems to be coming from Thelonious Monk, both in the off-center rhythms and in his ability to create the illusion of note-bending. But then it's combined with the riff-based arrangements for Kirk, Ervin, and trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and that gives it a very different sense of propulsion.

Also Mingus does a lot of vocalizing on Oh Yeah. Not so much singing, mind you, but exuberant bluesy punctuations that serve as a running commentary on the music as much as it delivers lyrical content. Mingus chants, scats, shouts, and wails throughout the proceedings, pushing the band toward an ecstatic fervor or sending them headlong into the deep of the blues. But let me ask you something, Mendelsohn: it seems a lot of people cite the instrumental nature of jazz as a deterrent. Did the presence of Mingus’ vocals here help you find your way into this album more easily?

Mendelsohn: Yes, but not so much in the way that it pushed Mingus’ jazz closer to the realm of rock music. I liked the vocals because they became another element for Mingus to play with and against the rest of the band. Kirk’s avant blowing may rule this album, but it’s Mingus doing the call or the response that, as you noted, drives this record from place to place. I also get the feeling that a large part of the vocalization is just excitement in the music taking over. There is definitely an infectious enthusiasm that weaves itself through this record.

Given all the praise we’ve been heaping on this record, I’m a little surprised it isn’t higher on the Great List. I mean, I’m not all that surprised. Oh Yeah is a jazz record and it was released in the early 1960s, several years before the critical industrial complex started to spin up as rock 'n' roll took over. Still, it’s a shame. I could see this album ranking much higher, especially with its touchstones in R&B, soul, and the blues.

Klinger: It’s possible that Oh Yeah could get rediscovered as that missing link between be-bop, Kansas City-style honkers, and what was to come, and then in the process it could make its way up the list. Even if it doesn’t, this is still an excellent introduction to an often challenging musical form, because it does just what I think jazz excels at — it rewards you whether you’re skimming the surface or diving in deeper.

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