Charles Mingus Sextet: Cornell 1964

Charles Mingus Sextet
Cornell 1964
Blue Note

Blue Note Records is making a habit digging up certifiable gems from jazz’s hidden past. In 2005, Blue Note released a sterling Town Hall concert of Thelonious Monk’s band with John Coltrane that forced us all to rehear the relationship between two great artists. The summer of 2007 brings us a lost concert by Charles Mingus and the legendary bassist’s finest band.

Mingus was one of the finest composers in jazz and a bassist of power, versatility, and passion. He was also a brilliant bandleader who not only chose superb and unique sidemen but also coaxed them to deliver the performances of their lives. Cornell 1964 highlights all three of these strengths. The sextet performs several of the great Mingus tunes (“Fables of Faubus”, “Meditations”, and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk”, among others), the concert features ample solo work by the header, and it contains lifetime-best work by trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard, and legendary reed player Eric Dolphy.

This is a band that Mingus fans should already hold dear, as most of the band was featured on The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, a long-available recording from the band’s tour of Europe just weeks before the death of Dolphy. Trumpeter Johnny Coles, however, missed most of the tour with a stomach ulcer, and barely appears on Great Concert. Here, just weeks before leaving for Europe, the band is complete, and Coles’ role — easy enough to dismiss when listening to Dolphy, Byard, and Jordon play so passionately in Europe — plainly strengthens the band and more deeply serves the compositions.

It should be said up front that the sound on this recording, while clear, has a somewhat unattractive directness, sounding as it was pulled directly from the sound board at the Ivy League concert; the horns and bass are exposed nakedly, while the piano and drums are somewhat blurred in the mix. However, the sound quality is still good for the era, and the substance of the music quickly makes it irrelevant.

The sound, for example, on “Meditations” is thick with agitation and polyrhythm. The hammering four-note riff that repeats over the so much of the tune is raw and urgent. When the melody is stated by Dolphy’s flute and Mingus playing arco, Coles’ trumpet is essential to the supporting ensemble. His solo on the same tune is both pretty and vinegary — a surprise that shifts from a pleading cry over a fast tempo to a butterfly on the wind when things ease. His blues playing on “So Long Eric” is outstanding, where he never plays too much and continually dances with the rhythm section’s jabbing support.

Clifford Jordan, perhaps the least decorated of this band’s members, also rides continual waves of emotion and power. He plays with a crystal tone and a cry at the top of his register, sometimes sounding like an eerie precursor to a modern player like Michael Brecker. Fluid and polished for much of his solo on “Faubus,” it is particularly delicious to hear him test the limits of tonality when the band cuts out and leaves him mostly solo to bend notes and let his tone break up on slow glissandi down the tenor’s register.

Pianist Jaki Byard, of course, is purely himself and in elegant form here. His ability to shift between old-school stride playing and messy, emotional freedom simply has no rival in jazz. He generously featured in Cornell 1964 with a solo to begin the concert (“ATFW You”, a Tatum-ish piece that spans barrelhouse piano and ballad styles) that leads directly into a duet with Mingus on Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”. Byard plays just as effectively, however, as a soloist in the larger band who can play rough with the horns. As lush as he is on “Orange”, he is just as insane and bold on the long-form classics such as “Faubus” or “Meditations”.

The star soloist, however, is inevitably Eric Dolphy. Just three months away from his death in Europe from a diabetic coma, Dolphy was in the midst of making some of the greatest music of his era. He had recorded his Blue Note masterpiece Out to Lunch just weeks before and would appeared as a sideman on Andrew Hill’s equally essential Point of Departure two weeks later. At Cornell with his long-time collaborator Mingus, Dolphy is a hotbed of ideas. Playing more bass clarinet than usual, Dolphy goes beyond his usual lurching, wide-interval rumble of outside-in playing. Here, he is volcanic, with fresh musical ideas bubbling to the surface every several measures. On “Take the A Train”, he plays as vocally and ingeniously as he might on the “freer” tracks — bending notes at will, sounding like he is talking to every jazz fan down the ages, explaining how you can be utterly within the tradition and still testing it with every astonishing musical phrase.

Dolphy sounds great everywhere, but hearing his flute on “Jitterbug Waltz” is particularly wonderful. Probably the greatest stylist on flute in jazz history, Dolphy makes the instrument something wholly new in this solo, and you can hear Mingus gushing with pleasure on the recording, urging his man onward with audible exclamations of “Hey!” and “Yes!” The whole occasion was obviously a joy to the musicians. Mingus — so often thought of as a surly and difficult man — has the audience laughing through a program of challenging jazz. Because the concert was set for March 18th, the leader calls “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, swung in 6/8 time — a tune likely not in anyone’s book but played delightfully. The musicians remake it, of course, but never lose the melody in their solos, with Coles snaking through it easily as Dolphy and Jordan improvise accompanying figures the urge him on and up.

Finally, a word about Charles Mingus the bass player. He cast such a huge shadow as a composer and bandleader that Mingus’s instrumental prowess is taken for granted. Here and on so many other recordings, the engine of swing and urgency that was the Mingus/Dannie Richmond rhythm section defines the style and the pleasure of the music. Richmond’s drums have a precision that is never fussy, and Mingus’s bass work is muscular without ever lapsing into poor intonation or unstructured freedom. If the Miles Davis rhythm sections of the ’50s and ’60s were like a Mercedes Benz — neat but powerful — then the Mingus/Richmond team ran more like a vintage Camaro or Mustang — surging forward with power and great engineering.

The tapes for Cornell ’64 were recently discovered by Sue Mingus, the great man’s widow and a tireless promoter of his legacy. It’s hard to imagine how such gems could sit unnoticed for 43 years. Surely they were glowing in the dark or pulsing a bit or at least vibrating with the need to be heard. The riches here will take fans months of listening to absorb. As similar as the music is the 1964 Town Hall concert and the later European recordings, it also proves again the truth about jazz: that it really is different every night, that at its best it is the kind of organic art form that doesn’t get stale over four decades (or maybe 20), and that it can provide pleasures of discovery and rapture that are rare.

This is one of those recordings — rare, indeed.

RATING 9 / 10