Mingus’ “Tijuana Moods” Reborn

A historic concert tour revives an underrated masterwork by the bassist-composer

Mingus Dynasty performs "Tijuana Moods" in San Diego, on Jan. 22

“Charles Mingus would be very proud of this band,” said Charles McPherson, shortly after the Mingus Dynasty’s sold-out “Tijuana Moods” concert in San Diego on Jan. 22.

If anyone is qualified to offer an expert evaluation of this seven-man ensemble—and suggest how its iconic namesake would have rated the group’s performance—it’s McPherson. The esteemed alto saxophonist was hired by Mingus in late 1959. He remained with the towering bassist, composer and bandleader until 1972, performing on numerous Mingus recordings and in myriad concerts.

McPherson teamed up with Mingus two years after Tijuana Moods was made in 1957. But he’s well acquainted with the music on that seminal album, which inexplicably languished in the RCA Records vaults for five years before finally being released in 1962, and has recently been resurrected on concert stages.

Born in the dusty Arizona border town of Nogales, Mingus moved to California with his family as a toddler. He lived in Los Angeles for the first three decades of his life, and was a regular Tijuana visitor, as he noted in his 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog, and his liner notes for Tijuana Moods. At the time of its belated release, Mingus proudly declared the album the best he’d ever made. Now, as then, it is a landmark work: an ambitious concept album that fuses an array of musical styles from points near and far, features seamlessly blended, intricate arrangements and freewheeling improvisations, and utilizes post-recording editing to combine different studio takes.

Happily, Tijuana Moods has now taken on a new life, 39 years after Mingus’ 1979 death in Cuernavaca, Mexico, due to a heart attack related to his ALS. The album’s resurgence was celebrated with a five-city, three-state “Mingus Dynasty” tour in January, for which the album was performed live, in its entirety, for the first time anywhere. The tour was produced under the auspices of the Western Jazz Presenters Network.

Equally significant, on Jan. 21 the tour included a free “Tijuana Moods” concert at the Tijuana Cultural Center, about two miles from the U.S./Mexico border. It also featured a San Diego concert on Jan. 22, preceded by a Mingus panel discussion on Jan. 20, moderated by Grammy-winning jazz critic and author Ashley Kahn. Along with McPherson, the panel included noted percussionist and orchestra leader Steven Schick, pianist-composer Anthony Davis (who, as a student at Yale in the late 1960s, studied with McPherson) and “Tijuana Moods” tour organizer Daniel Atkinson, the Jazz Program Coordinator at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, just north of San Diego.

“To have Tijuana Moods performed by Mingus Dynasty in both Tijuana and San Diego is pretty historic,” Atkinson said. “So is having had this tour kick off at the 2018 Tucson Jazz Festival, an hour from Nogales.”

That significance was not lost on Mingus Dynasty bassist and music director Boris Kozlov. “We actually played Tijuana Moods in Tijuana yesterday, finally,” he told the capacity audience at the acoustically impeccable Scripps Research Institute Auditorium in La Jolla.

The album’s five songs, which clock in at about 35 minutes on the original recording, lasted almost exactly the same length onstage in San Diego. But this was no staid, note-for-note tribute performance. “Dizzy Moods,” “Ysabel’s Table Dance,” “Tijuana Gift Shop,” “Los Mariachis” and “Flamingo” were reborn anew, as Kozlov and the band simultaneously saluted the original compositions and used them as launch pads to explore new aural vistas. A tricky balancing act on paper, it was achieved with seamless aplomb by saxophonists Wayne Escoffery and Brandon Wright, trombonist/vocalist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist Theo Hill and drum dynamo Adam Cruz, who stood out whether using sticks, brushes or his bare hands.

The concert featured several other Mingus classics, including “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” and “Three or Four Shades of Blues.” But it was Tijuana Moods that soared the highest, with its constant shifts in tempo, extended harmonies and the sheer ebullience with which it leaps stylistic borders. The album’s many attributes—and Mingus’ shape-shifting legacy—were discussed at length at the Jan. 20 panel discussion.

“You can extend this idea of borders by [looking at] the way Mingus explores the borders between classical and jazz, bebop and free jazz,” noted Davis, a UC San Diego music professor. “He may be the most successful in finding his own voice in that liminal space.”

Charles McPherson hailed Mingus for the “multi-dimensionality” of his music.

“Besides being a great composer and musician, he was a very interesting man, and I learned a lot from him—not just about music but about life,” McPherson said before dropping a bombshell.

“By the way,” he added, “I met Ysabel [Morel], the lady standing next to the jukebox [on the cover of Tijuana Moods; she also plays castanets on the album].”

Ashley Kahn responded immediately, asking: “What can you say about that?”

McPherson grinned. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I blacked out! But I met her—I was 19 when it happened—and she was, um, yeah.”

Read an excerpt, from David Yaffe’s Joni Mitchell biography, on Mingus’ unlikely collaboration with the singer-songwriter.

Photo by Daniel Atkinson.