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Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-1965

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Certain Mosaic boxes pull rank on others, no small accomplishment given the unilateral quality of the company’s various releases. This particular set, though, is one of the half dozen or so true heavies: an epic slab of absolutely vital-and vanguard-1960s music, and a whole new way of looking at Charles Mingus.

Timed to the 90th anniversary of Mingus’ birth, we get a virtual passel of unreleased live music. The famed Town Hall concert from ’64, which previously existed in truncated, 47-minute form, has now been fleshed out to two full discs on this seven-disc set. Beyond the souped-up fidelity (this is jazz that profits by volume), there’s the seemingly telepathic interplay of one of the medium’s top small groups as they wax what could well be their most diverse, passionate and polished set. For all of the lineup’s myriad strengths-from Eric Dolphy’s multidimensionality to Johnny Coles’ tart trumpet breaks to Jaki Byard’s pianistic finesse-this classic sextet could get a bit rangy, as a host of bootleg recordings attest, but here they’re both rapacious and in complete control. Byard may well be the concert’s hero, in his unassuming way. The opening “A.T.F.W.”-an acronym for Art Tatum and Fats Waller-moves from ragtime territory to various stride maneuvers, with virtuosic flourishes worthy of the two titular pianists and a few classically leaning touches of suggestive of Alexander Scriabin tossed in as well.

The same unit turns up in Amsterdam less than a week later, with Mingus’ bass providing more of a central role, driving the ensemble forward with drummer Dannie Richmond a sort of aide-de-camp on the rhythm front, and hornmen Coles and Clifford Jordan pushing the music toward full-on soul. Charlie Parker references dominate the gig, with Mingus intent on offering a jazz history lesson while outlining his own future with a knotty version of “Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters,” a deep descent into jazz as a kind of civic Impressionism.

One gets a sense for how time was compacted in Mingus’ world with the Monterey set from September of that same year. Dolphy was dead, and “Meditations” was now outfitted in orchestral digs, with six crack local musicians bolstering a sextet featuring John Handy subbing for Booker Ervin on sax. The gig is an applause fest, with Mingus’ bass acting as de facto conductor, guiding and cueing the musicians as their sonic tapestry unfolds. This time, Ellington references dominate, courtesy of a 25-minute medley that hauls mid-century jazz straight into the zeitgeist of the 1960s counterculture.

The final two discs find Mingus in Minneapolis in the spring of 1965, and back at Monterey in the fall, for a rather chippy affair. Over an hour of new material marks the former, with Mingus clearly having a blast leading up the band he rated as his all-time favorite. “It Was a Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama,” which was previously unknown, is an easy rival for something like Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a haunting piece of folkloric art made more terrible, more visceral, by dint of its urgency, with Mingus initiating a vocal figure that twines with the band.

The second Monterey set has only ever appeared in the most piecemeal fashion, which might be fitting for what was a piecemeal gig. The band-an extension of the octet that had formed in the summer of 1965, an outgrowth of the Minneapolis sextet, now with two trumpets, tuba and French horn-performs for only 30 minutes. A wild rendition of “They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux” finds Mingus barking out “Alto! Alto!” to Charles McPherson, who does his best to oblige the grand overseer. A wise decision, doubtless, as anyone who spends a few hours with this box would vouch.

Originally Published