There is a longstanding tension in improvised music between the primacy of live performance and the permanence of recordings. When the music is truly different at every performance because so much is being improvised, the most valid “experience” would seem to be in hearing it live, in the moment. Yet because a score can’t capture jazz performance, recordings are the only valid permanent representation of the music. This results in particular recordings becoming canonical, the frozen-in-time official version of a piece of music even though the musicians themselves don’t keep performing it the same way – just think of how Miles Davis‘ “So What” from Kind of Blue is set in our brain at a loping mid-tempo even though the band almost always performed it much faster and without the studio introduction that we know so well.
Charles Mingus‘ bands have not been locked into that dialectic quite as much as some artists. Mingus often re-recorded favorite compositions (for example, there’s not a single definitive “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” or “Fables of Faubus”), and some of his finest recordings happen to be from concerts, which emphasize the tunes as vehicles for interpretation that change over time. And, with Mingus, the shifting personnel in his “Jazz Workshop” tended to give us a kaleidoscope of ways to hear his best tunes.
Even so, The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s is distinct in delivering the pleasure of re-hearing Mingus’s music. It is a fine tool for emphasizing expansive the Mingus approach could be. Recorded live at the famous London club in August of 1972, it catches the iconic bassist, composer, and bandleader at both the height of his powers and at a moment of transition. It’s not a weak Mingus recording, exactly, but the band is partly forgettable and would not stay together very long. But Mingus, his compositions, and conception soar.
With his (apparently largely fictional) autobiography just published and a Guggenheim Fellowship bringing him to a long-deserved level of respect and acknowledgment, Mingus was peaking as an artist at the age of 50. Yet his band was shifting. The brilliant group of the 1960s with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Jaki Byard was behind him, and the quintet with Don Pullen and George Adams had yet to form. He had not recorded much in the late 1960s, and when Columbia Records signed him in the early ’70s, it put together Let My Children Hear Music, a terrific recording but one with a jazz orchestra produced by Teo Macero, not the workshop band. The result is that most of us don’t know the band that pulled into Ronnie Scott’s that summer: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones, the very young Jon Faddis on trumpet, pianist John Foster, and drummer Roy Brooks. McPherson is the most august and experienced player by a long shot, and Jones and Foster would likely count the Mingus gig as their career highlight.
So, what does a Mingus band of this kind sound like? How does the band stack up? Is the master’s music still transcendent in this band’s hands? A Mingus band without Dannie Richmond? Really? The evidence necessary for answering these questions, recorded by Columbia Records just a year before it dropped every jazz musician on its roster other than Miles Davis, is being heard 50 years later for the first time.
The band sounds every bit like a Mingus band, even a classic Mingus band. Brooks sounds particularly creative and connected to Mingus, at the height of his own considerable powers after years playing drums with the best jazz musicians in the world and acquiring both command and creativity. He is deliciously sloppy and free in certain spots, only to zip the band up tight at perfect tempo in others. On “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues”, he works perfectly with Mingus in moving the band across tempos and feelings, clattering for eight bars, then super-smooth a moment later.
The other stand-out, naturally, is McPherson, who plays with the combination of modern jazz intelligence and deeply felt blues authenticity that a Mingus band tends to draw out of players. His solo, for example, on “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues”, is played with utmost relaxation, the lines leaning back into easy phrasing that invokes Charlie Parker but seems, equally, to be from a time before bebop made every player just a wee bit frenetic. He plays with more range and expansiveness on this set’s 35-minute version of “Fables of Faubus”, but he is also wise to the band’s past and, therefore, never seems to be hinting at Eric Dolphy’s famously vocalized alto saxophone solos on the tune. Rather, he stays cool for long stretches, allowing his bandmates to chatter collectively with him, even as it is his solo – and then when the band pushes him forward, rhythmically, he becomes a fleet exponent of a more modern sensibility.
The rest of the sidemen here are fascinating but not exceptional, individually or collectively. Faddis is just 19 years old, coming off his Dizzy Gillespie apprenticeship, and he sounds most comfortable when he is clattering in the upper register or smearing notes expressively, but all the connective tissue of a well-crafted solo isn’t yet there. On “Faubus”, he is entertaining but in the style of a comedian telling one-liners rather than someone telling a story. (Comparing Faddis here to the 19-year-old Wynton Marsalis with Art Blakey reveals just how polished and complete Marsalis was at such a young age.)
Similarly, John Foster’s pianism sounds brash and exciting but patchwork. Unlike McPherson, Foster seems to be playing utterly in the shadow of his famous predecessor, Jaki Byard. He uses Byard-ian pseudo-stride playing whenever he can, employing crackling dissonances one moment and then pre-bop two-hand pianism the next. Listen to his “Faubus” solo (this is the performance during the set that really exposes everyone’s best and least good side), and any number of 45-second chunks will arrest you, but if you’re like me, unsure how the whole solo makes any sense.
The hardest player to get a bead on may be tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones. Jones plays his “Faubus” solo more like a pro, listening carefully to the leader’s cues, tossing ideas back and forth, capable of a seemingly endless string of interesting licks. Some of the licks seem like they are from another world – meaning that he converses with Mingus on “Faubus” at times as if he were channeling Boots Randolph rather than Booker Ervin or Lester Young. It’s odd, but he integrates them into a flowing improvisation that has its own logic. He is slickly excellent, yes, but he sounds like he is visiting Mingus from a faraway land, and, well, the master is gracious and brilliant enough to accommodate him. He didn’t last long with Mingus in the “jazz” world. Too bad in some ways, but when you hear him on the crazy, wildly open track “Mind Reader’s Convention in Milano (A.k.a. No. 29)” you sense that his excellent saxophony is not in the service of feelings as much as in the production of notes.
Mingus himself is a marvel at every turn. He takes some long, unaccompanied solos (maybe because he knew the full band wasn’t quite there?), and they are masterful: free and full of form at once. He famous humor is on display as he pushes and pulls the rhythm section with known licks and propulsive rhythm, and he glues the proceedings together seriously as well. “Mind Reader’s Convention” uses various cells of composition like railroad cars along a half-hour procession, and the Mingus/Brooks tandem keeps it chugging. Maybe if this band had stayed together, Mingus would have been the one to whip them all into shape, realizing their individual voices in concert.
Some of the other repertoire on this set is curious. “Noddin’ Ya Head” is a vocal feature for Foster – a novelty vocal being a not-unknown gambit in the Mingus quiver, but otherwise more a lark than a joy. “Pops” is simply a Mingus-styled version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, again with Foster on vocal, doing his best Armstrong imitation. I mean, it is crazy fun and all, with Jones playing clarinet and Faddis indulging some New Orleans styling, but only McPherson and Mingus seem to understands that this exercise in genre play is designed to be serious as well as a lark. The release also contains a couple of brief intro-outro pieces (“Ko-Ko” and “Airmail Special”) that aren’t proper performances. In the end, the set is evenly divided between long versions of Mingus classics and material of limited interest.
This is not to say that The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s doesn’t have pleasures and value. It’s the Mingus centennial year, so we can make time for less than essential material. But in a brilliant body of work like that of Charles Mingus, this is more sinew than either muscle or bone.