Charles Mingus The Lost Album From Ronnie Scotts

Charles Mingus at His Unruly, Instigative Peak on ‘The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s’

Charles Mingus’ The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s is right there next to his most blistering records from the 1960s. It’s that good.

The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott's
Charles Mingus
Resonance Records
23 April 2022

The 1970s are often incorrectly regarded as a fallow period for jazz. While the genre may have continued to suffer commercially, a quick examination of NYC’s fertile Brooklyn loft scene, the recordings preserved on Oakland, California’s Black Jazz label, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s playful, multi-directional explorations, Pharaoh Sanders’ 11-album Impulse! run, Alice Coltrane’s string-laced soundtracks to universal consciousness, Sun Ra’s omniversal extravaganzas, or St Louis’ groundbreaking Black Artists Group’s continued relevance showed the decade’s importance of jazz’s forward push. The same can be said of Charles Mingus, especially now that we have this pristine document from a 1972 stint at London’s Ronnie Scott’s club.

It’s nearly impossible not to compare Mingus’ 1970s work to monumentally explosive compositions he’d already laid out by 1965, when mental illness and indifference sidelined him for five years. He took Ellington’s multi-hued tonal palette from roughly a decade between 1955 and 1965 and applied it to civil rights-era turbulence. In the process, Mingus sprinkled bop, Webern, Ives, Spanish folk hints, R&B, and free-jazz unrest into some of the most ferocious music the jazz world will ever hear. Recordings such as Oh Yeah, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Music Written for Monterey…Not Heard. Played in its Entirety UCLA 1965, or any of his 1964 European dates with a band that included Eric Dolphy are impossible to top.

Meanwhile, Mingus demanded performances from his talented players that constantly pushed them to the edges of their abilities. He grounded it all in bass playing endless in its virtuosity, but more importantly, core-of-the-earth deep in passion. Mingus had conversations with his players, hollering encouragement through his instrument (and sometimes his voice), constantly scrapping with a litany of injustices in his writing and blowing it all up, where pieces of music history could cascade across any given stage in fragments before re-configuring themselves at an audience’s feet.  Listen to any extended work on this impeccably recorded, all-engulfing set and feel the tempest. Had this work seen the light of day as intended, it would have stood in contrast to much of his final decade’s admittedly more conventional, perhaps more evenly-medicated work.

The story is this. Mingus brought a recording crew into Ronnie Scott’s at the end of his two and half week residency at the club, which signaled the end of his summer 1972 tour. You can hear him encouraging the audience at the end of tracks, letting them know the show was being documented. The plan was to release it on Columbia, a label he’d recorded for off and on since the 1950s. Unbeknownst to him, CBS head honcho Clive Davis, just before he got fired, decided to drop most of the label’s jazz roster in 1973. The man who went on to force Barry Manilow and Ace of Base on the world dropped the likes of Mingus and Ornette (though he at least kept Miles). Yet now, as we celebrate Mingus’ 100th birthday, we finally get to hear the music.

By the early 1970s, Mingus was nearly 50 years old and had been recording since the early 1940s. He was now reaching elder statesman status, on a comeback that therapy and proper medication had allowed. His ability to surround himself with amazing players, including then-young upstarts, hadn’t diminished. The band he brought into Ronnie Scott’s, featured a 19-year-old Jon Faddis on trumpet, John Foster on piano, Bobby Jones and longtime cohort Charles McPherson on saxes, and Roy Brooks on drums. And on the two nights recorded and released here, they were on fire. The closest comparison of what and how this band played is the aforementioned 1964 gigs with Dolphy.

Like those sets, the track lengths are monumental (three clock in at a half-hour or longer, while several others hover near the 20-minute mark). And like those 1964 recordings, individual soloists are in constant conversation with the leader as tempos shift under their feet. Other players add commentary; sometimes, the band will drop away at a moment’s notice to leave a single player to explore the outer reaches of their tonal palette. A few of the tracks, “Fables of Faubus” and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues” were played on those earlier dates as well.

Yet, if anything, this band takes them further out without ever truly abandoning rhythmic structure. “Faubus” in particular finds Foster alone one minute, only to see the band re-appear, flirt with the theme, and then drop the tempo again, stretching the rhythm out as if in a black hole. Mingus, all the while, bows his bass as Faddis sails alongside him. Caldrons get stirred as McPherson’s alto gets swept up in the stew. Later, he and Mingus might have a dialogue where Foster comments Cecil Taylor-like on the sidelines.

At one point, Mingus takes the spotlight, hinting at the bowed melody of his own “Meditations” or dipping into the spiritual “Down by the Riverside”. Not content to merely set a tempo and let musicians solo, Mingus was more interested in pushing for maximum interplay without even a hint of showing off. There are no “look-at-me” moments here. Instead, this is a collection of players rooted in jazz’s history, constantly nudging the music omnidirectionally. His various band members rarely scaled such heights outside of his leadership.

Newer compositions also appear, the most innovative of which is “Mind Reader’s Convention in Milano”, otherwise known as “Number 29″. The theme finds the band braying at the doors of the tune, where they then waste no time skittering off in various directions and colliding back to the theme before taking the song in an exploratory tug of war for nearly a half-hour. Its final few minutes unleash an unmetered cacophony that would rival Sun Ra’s Arkestra at their most unhinged. It shows a composer who had lost none of his intensity.

Elsewhere, on “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues”, the band hits a deep, long, slow grind with a musical saw solo from Brooks. If there are wrinkles in the brilliance, they come with shorter tracks such as “Pops”, which has Foster doing his best Louis Armstrong impression over “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Yet, even here, the band can’t help but prank jazz conventions, giving individual soloists time for mini-detonations as they take Dixieland to church.

The album comes with a booklet featuring an interview with Mingus and McPherson from 1972, recollections from Brian Priestley, and conversations with several former Mingus sidemen and other players, such as Christian McBride, for whom the man was a massive influence. Sue Mingus, without whose diligence and archival abilities we would not have many of her late husband’s recordings, also gets some space.

For someone who has worshiped at the altar of pre-1970s Mingus for some 35 years and who more or less dismissed the man’s final decade, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s has proved me wrong. I’d stick this album up next to his most blistering records from the 1960s. It’s that good.

RATING 9 / 10
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