Recent years have been banner ones for newly discovered recordings of classic jazz greats, Charles Mingus included … but the 4-disc @ Bremen 1964 & 1975 isn’t one of those. Both these concerts have circulated for decades on pirate releases (especially the 1964 performance, from that spring’s storied European tour). This, though, is both the first legitimate release of the concerts, and the first to be mastered from the original source recording. You may know the music, but do you know it without fifth-generation tape hiss? (That said, the fidelity is still less than optimal.)
If you don’t know the music, you should. The bassist/composer’s 1964 sextet was unimpeachable: drummer Dannie Richmond, pianist Jaki Byard, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, and altoist/bass clarinetist/flutist Eric Dolphy. Eleven weeks later Dolphy would be dead in Berlin. Yet here he is in playful dissonance on “Hope So Eric” (a.k.a. “So Long Eric,” the tune Mingus wrote for his departure from the band). His genius is bursting with life, ready to take on the world.
He’s not the only one. The whole band is champing at the bit on “Fables of Faubus” (with Richmond particularly avid), “Parkeriana,” and what might be the definitive recording of Mingus’s long-form work “Meditations on Integration,” here 25 minutes long. It’s one of only two legit recordings with the whole band; the night after Bremen, in Paris, Coles collapsed onstage with a bleeding ulcer before they got to “Meditations” and he had to leave the tour. Here, his and Byard’s feathered-edge lyricism counterweighs both the somber tune and the other four musicians’ rampages.
The ’64 band is often called Mingus’ best. The ’75 quintet (trumpeter Jack Walrath, tenorist George Adams, pianist Don Pullen, and Richmond), though, is high in the running. They’re tight as hell, they understand Mingus’ music, and might even be more adventurous than the Dolphy unit. In fact, Adams lays down a Dolphy-like line on “Sue’s Changes,” and it’s not the song’s freest moment: Pullen’s extended workout is simultaneously as sensitive and as outside as anything that ever bore the Mingus imprimatur. He gives another such—this time partnering with Walrath—on “Black Bat and Poles,” somehow finding the happy medium between Cecil Taylor and Chopin.
More important, this band is keyed into the leader’s tempestuous personality. At 15-and-a-half minutes, 1975’s “Fables of Faubus” is less than half of 1964’s, but no less roiling and passionate. Walrath explores the full range of his horn, Pullen piles up blues devices, and Adams alternates between skronk and squall; throughout, Richmond matches Mingus’ deadly intensity beat for hearty beat. On a dime, all five attenuate themselves for the lovely elegy “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” then work back up to a blues shout (literally, in the case of Adams’ vocal) for “Devil Blues.”
The 1975 concert has an advantage in its much higher fidelity; the 1964 performance has the greater historical importance. Both are enough to make @ Bremen essential for even casual Mingus fans.