January 5, 2013


Mercurial Mingus (ERIC FELTEN, 1/04/13, WSJ)

In 1959, Columbia Records released three discs poised to set the future course of jazz: Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," Dave Brubeck's "Time Out" and "Mingus Ah Um" by bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus. "Kind of Blue" has come to be considered the essential jazz record, and "Time Out" the essential Brubeck record. "Mingus Ah Um" deserves recognition not only as the essential Mingus disc, but as a compelling, enduring vision for jazz radically different from the other two.

The Davis and Brubeck records were variations on the "cool" aesthetic. In reaction to the pyrotechnics of bebop, with its blizzards of notes and relentless complexities of harmony, Davis presented an ascetic simplicity, with spare melodic improvisations over modal harmonies so static they nearly drone. Brubeck took California's "West Coast Cool" school and with mathematical intellection removed it even further from the sweaty dance rhythms of jazz gone by: The album's compositions were in tricky, decidedly dance-averse time signatures.

The self-conscious modernism of "Time Out" and "Mingus Ah Um" was announced on their covers, both of which featured abstract art by S. Neil Fujita. But the records were modern in very different ways. Cool was not the idiom for Mingus, an artist variously described as "mercurial," "volcanic," "volatile"--choose your euphemism. "Better Git It in Your Soul" opens "Mingus Ah Um" with an ecstatic fervor emphatically at odds with the cerebral style of the moment. "Boogie Stop Shuffle" has enough energy to be a Louis Prima side, if Prima had been prone to scowl.

Perhaps most important, Mingus, who was born in 1922 and died in 1979, was not looking to divorce jazz's future from its past. "Ah Um" is explicit in its celebration of sounds predating the postwar bebop revolution.

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Posted by at January 5, 2013 6:59 AM

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