Charles Mingus made many of his greatest recordings between 1956 and 1961, but not all of them were for Atlantic. Contemporaneous dates for Candid, Columbia and numerous others during that period are arguably as important, and certainly integral to an overall examination of his evolution as a composer and instrumentalist. Yet, Mingus’ Atlantics stand on their own with a singular riveting perfection, overshadowing the fact that they do not tell the entire story of Mingus’ music during this unprecedented fertile period. Still, the music on such albums as Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown and Blues & Roots is so vivid and compelling that the Atlantic studio albums from this period have rightly become the nexus of Mingus’ discography. This is resoundingly confirmed by the smartly designed and expertly annotated six-CD Passions Of A Man.
Purists may take issue with the inclusion of Mingus At Antibes, as this ’60s concert was recorded by Barclay and not issued by Atlantic until the mid-’70s. Featuring Ted Curson, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin and Dannie Richmond, the program includes such centerpieces of the Candid sessions as “Folk Forms 1” and “What Love” (Bud Powell guests on one track). Since the recordings are presented in chronological order, this set of expansive performances is tucked between the elemental Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah tracks. The jarring contrast created by this sequencing justifies the presence of the concert material, as it underscores the fact that Mingus’ music was going in several directions at once.
The chronological presentation also reinforces this point by reassembling the sessions that not only yielded The Clown and Oh Yeah, but also the last studio album of the period, Tonight At Noon, which was comprised of tracks not included in the two earlier albums. The spectrum of materials Mingus tackled in the second Clown session alone is staggering. “Passions Of A Woman Loved,” the first piece of the session, is more a rondo than a suite, a common description prompted by the Ellingtonian hues in Mingus’ palette; Mingus masterfully swirls his materials together through improvisational sections that range from the romantic to the cacophonic. It’s not remarkable that Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is the model for the next piece,”Blue Cee;” the exceptional quality of this piece is its sustained gentle swing throughout 27 choruses. Then Mingus digs into “Tonight At Noon,” a feverishly swinging piece punctuated by caterwauling prototypical free jazz polyphony, “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird,” one of the most sumptuous and structurally intricate melodies in the jazz canon, and the riff-propelled “Haitian Fight Song.”
Unfortunately, a 1976 warehouse fire destroyed an enormous number of Atlantic’s master tapes from this period; it is now impossible to ascertain how Mingus in mid-session shaped works like “The Clown,” which integrated improvised storytelling in a flexible large canvas, or the equally seamless multi-part “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” which boldly utilized collective improvisations. The four surviving alternates from the Blues & Roots session issued here for the first time offer fascinating insights into Mingus’ studio methods. Almost every chorus of the incomplete take of a potentially longer version of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” offers notable contrasts with the master; starting at a slower tempo, then accelerating through the collective statements prior to Horace Parlan’s solo (which is far better than the master’s), this more brawling version breaks down during Booker Ervin’s gutsy turn. The alternate of “My Jelly Roll Soul” is substantially different. The solo order is expanded to include John Handy, Willie Dennis (offering a different slant than Jimmy Knepper), Ervin and Pepper Adams (in addition to Knepper, Parlan and Jackie McLean) and the exchange between Mingus and Richmond has a contour distinct from the master’s. Slightly flawed by a shaky tempo at the top of the take, the alternate of “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too,” also has an expanded solo order; in addition to Mal Waldron, Ervin, Handy, and Richmond, Knepper, Dennis and Adams also hand in hard-hitting statements. Contrary to the tendency shown with other pieces, it is the concise version of “Tensions,” which features statements only by Mingus and Ervin, that was not originally issued.
Beyond these four tracks, Passions Of A Man contains few rarities. The set is filled out by four inconsequential, never-before-available-on-CD sides from a ’56 Teddy Charles quartet date (which supposedly included Mingus’ prototype for “What Love?,” another victim of the warehouse fire), and a frequently revealing 75-minute conversation between Mingus and Nesuhi Ertegun, a portion of which was included on the CD version of Oh Yeah. Despite the paucity of long-vaulted gems, Passions Of A Man is a compelling collection.