Blue Note Records
Last year, the recovered gem Music Written for Monterey 1965 Not Heard … Played in Its Entirety at UCLA (Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside) featured Charles Mingus leading a large ensemble through compelling compositions, warts and all. This year’s discovery is a stunning two-disc set from March 18, 1964, at Cornell, featuring most of the iconic bassist/composer’s standard small ensemble from that era (Eric Dolphy on alto, flute and bass clarinet; Clifford Jordan on tenor; Johnny Coles on trumpet; Jaki Byard on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums).
The set begins with a jubilant Byard solo, “ATFW You,” a succinct history of post-ragtime stride and swing jazz piano and an homage to Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Mingus follows this with a mesmerizing bass solo interpretation of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Lest one thinks this is going to be an exercise in jazz tradition, a half-hour “Fables of Faubus” obliterates that notion, careening from the playful, humorous main theme through numerous and severe shifts in tempo and mood—from slow blues and big-band swing to jarring discordant soloing—all the while dropping cartoonish quotes from sources like “Yankee Doodle” and Porgy and Bess. The first disc closes with the gorgeous debut of “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” a pensive ballad featuring Coles’ lyrical trumpeting, and a sprightly, exuberant rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
“Meditations” commences the second disc and proves to be the climactic centerpiece of the whole performance. It’s a tour de force, extraordinary in its stylistic and emotional breadth, a hallucinatory, postmodern jazz symphony with dynamic turns in volume and intensity. The uplifting blues of “So Long Eric” offers a little levity—with some sad irony, the title refers to Dolphy’s anticipated departure after this band’s European tour, not his death a mere three months after this concert.
Coles in particular shines throughout with his brawny yet songful playing, and Dolphy is in peak form, demonstrating complete mastery of all his instruments.