Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus
Mingus Ah Um

This is the most difficult decisions any music critic could ever make . . . and one of the stupidest ways to waste time that any human could ever undertake. I mean, come on; what kind of life is it when you obsess over something like this, over and over, depriving yourself of sleep, depriving your wife and young children of your company and comfort. . . .

But I’ve never been accused of having a life. So of course I had to obsess about this.

Should I choose a left-field obscurity that no one else has ever heard, thereby boosting my crit-cred because it’s virtually uncheckable? I have a lot of records in that category: for example, Divine Styler’s Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light, an album so weird that makes even the most avant-garde hip-hoppers sound like Will Smith. Everyone’s got a record that no one else has; how about the 1968 we’re-still-relevant careericide move by the Four Seasons entitled Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, which I just found on vinyl and is freaking me out completely? Or El Club de los Poetas Violentes’s Madrid Zona Bruta? None made the cut, though.

A good move is always to try to rehabilitate the reputation of an album that others have somehow overlooked in their blindness. My top candidate here would be Happy End of the World by Pizzicato Five, that bizarre break-beat pop masterpiece that continues to be underrated by everyone. What better way to piss people off than by choosing Pizzicato Five? Wait 10 years until everyone claims that they were on that album’s tip, and remember that I said it first, okay? Or I could put in a plug for Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu, which is the best album released so far in this decade and which got hit real hard by ye olde backlash for some reason that I just can’t figure out. It’s a wonderful soulful tough-minded softhearted poetic masterpiece . . . but you fools somehow decided it was boring and self-indulgent. Me and Badu are right about this one, but you’ll all see that someday.

Crucial move: pick a popular artist and make a plea for their weirder offerings. Prince is a good one to do this with, too; sure, 1999 and Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times are perfect albums, but how much better — and appropriate — to pick Around the World in a Day (which I love dearly) or Parade? . Obviously, the best Talking Heads album is More Songs About Buildings and Food…but someone else just wrote about that one on, so forget that. I feel the same way about Sandinista! over London Calling, Zen Arcade over Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and Curtis Live! over Curtis (Curtis Mayfield, that is). My favorite Springsteen record is Darkness on the Edge of Town (I liked him better when he wasn’t healing the nation); my favorite Boo Radleys record is C’mon Kids; time will prove me right about the superiority of Livro over all the other records in Caetano Veloso’s back catalogue. But none of these ended up on my list either.

And it’s clear that the greatest record of all time is James Brown’s four-disc set Star Time, in the course of which you can hear soul, funk, and hip-hop being invented. But I just can’t bring myself to pick a box set or a compilation, so sorry Stax/Volt Singles Volume 1 (nine discs) or Brazil Classics Volume 2: Forró, Etc. (only one disc but damn it’s hot and even Sugar Hill’s comp Greatest Rap Hits Volume 2.

So I threw everything out and just decided to go with one criterion: of all the albums I have ever heard, which ones have I never even once gotten bored by? I have serious musical ADD, and if I have to limit myself to one, then there we have it. There are only four, and two of them (Hijos del Culo by Bersuit Vergabarat and Chuntaros Radio Poder by El Gran Silencio) are just too recent in my collection for me to make a convincing case. And then there’s Double Nickels on the Dime, by the Minutemen, which is one of the most heroic and hilarious and complete statements of purpose of all time, a record extremely close to my heart and soul.

But up against its competitor, even Double Nickels has to take a back seat. Charles Mingus made dozens of albums, and four of them are beyond reproach; Mingus Ah Um is the best of them, and the best jazz record I have ever heard, and the album that sums up all that is great and holy and wonderful about music for me. It features some songs that have never left my head ever, solos that I can quote by heart, and a take-no-prisoners attitude that the toughest punk rockers can’t even begin to touch. And it was released more than 40 years ago. So much for me being “cool”.

The whole thing was recorded by Teo Macero in two days, May 5 and 12, 1959. This was Mingus’s first record on Columbia, so (Mingus being Mingus) he went all sideways; instead of calling in a bunch of well-known all-stars, he pulled together a young hungry band from his Jazz Workshop project: Booker Ervin and John Handy on saxophones along with older collaborator Shafi Hadi, Dannie Richmond on drums, and the amazing Horace Parlan on piano, with Mingus vets Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis alternating on trombone. (Compare Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, released the same year, with its ultra-hip lineup.) The fire and commitment of the young band is amazing — everyone except Mingus was 33 or younger — and the sound is impeccable, especially in its remastered CD version.

“Better Git It in Your Soul” is the first track, and has become the most daunting classic in jazz. It starts, appropriately, with Mingus on bass playing a strong figure that somehow sets the pulse for the entire 6/8 piece, which bursts into flower at the 18-second mark and never looks back. It’s a church revival meeting that somehow seems entirely secular; Mingus is testifying out loud, “Oh, yeah!” but it seems more like the Temple of Music than any religion dedicated to a deity. All the saxophones have ace solos, but the insane pulse carries the piece, with Parlan and Richmond hammering away in some kind of trance. Parlan gets high marks for his solo breaks all through the record — this is especially amazing considering he only had the use of two fingers on his right hand. He’s the Pete Gray of jazz, and a motha. And when the piece deconstructs itself at the 3:45 mark, with handclaps backing Ervin punching out the funkiest sax piece of all time, it just may be the origin of the funky breakdown in music.

The slow pieces are devastating: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is glacial in celebrating Lester Young, but its momentum is undeniable, and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” is what the band will be playing when we’re all ushered into that great jazz club in the sky. “Fables of Faubus” is a devastating burn on Orville Faubus, the racist cracker asshole governor of Arkansas; it lacks Mingus’ hilarious lyrics here (thanks, probably, to Columbia’s legal department), but the idea of a lurching stupid man standing in the way of progress and harmony is carried through perfectly in its stop-start groove. And the fast pieces are so amazingly fast that they are untouchable; “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is like speed metal, kinda, except without the metal part, and the be-bop pace of the Charlie Parker tribute “Bird Calls” would be intimidating for any other band.

But here is why this record is crucial: it is the template for all later album statements. Thelonious Monk had been the first jazz composer to really try to maintain a personal tone on his albums in the late 1950s, but a strong case can be made that Mingus Ah Um was the first record to really feel a musician’s personal stamp all the way through. I’m not saying this is a concept album, although his tributes to Parker and Young and Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton (and Faubus) do give it a certain unity. But think of any album released before this one, by anyone, in any genre: weren’t they all just collections of songs? Mingus Ah Um is a unified work, a novel as opposed to a volume of short stories, a manifesto that derives as much from its sequencing and total impact as it does from the individual performances and songs.

Well, okay, Kind of Blue and The Shape of Jazz to Come also came out in 1959. But isn’t it interesting that these three groundbreaking albums were all recorded at more or less the same time? For many reasons, this was the defining year in modern music history — this was the first time that musical artists were treated like artists instead of hit machines. So we’ve got the historical significance thing, the beauty and technical virtuosity thing, and the soulful thing covered. But what it really comes down to is this: This Record Is Absolutely Freakin’ Amazing In Every Single Way I Can Think Of, and it’s never ever bored me, not even once.

I guess it woulda been cooler to pick the Minutemen record, but I’ve made my choice. So there. You guys aren’t actually going to make me give up all my other records, are you?