Revinylization #21: Charles Mingus at Carnegie Hall

Mingus at Carnegie Hall documents one of the most extraordinary live jazz concerts. Atlantic Records released a one-disc LP of the same title in 1975,a few months after the heady event, but it included only the second half of the show—late-career Charles Mingus’s young quintet jamming for 45 minutes with three older guest stars on Ellington standards “C Jam Blues” and “Perdido” (the latter written by Juan Tizol). Left on the cutting-room floor was the entire first half—just the quintet, stretching for 75 minutes on Mingus classics (“Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Celia,” and “Fables of Faubus”), and a bluesy original by pianist Don Pullen (“Big Alice”). This new “Deluxe Edition” (3 LPs on Run Out Groove; also on Rhino as a 2-CD set) presents the whole concert for the first time. The new set expands our knowledge not only of the event but of the era. It’s also tremendously gripping and fun.

Mingus was a Janus-like figure in modern jazz, one face looking forward, one face looking back. He was among the most innovative bassists, composers, and bandleaders of his time, but he revered the masters of the traditions, and he ceaselessly struggled to carve out new paths within the old structures.

Nowhere was this struggle played out more rivetingly than in the Carnegie Hall concert, which was assembled at a time when many adventurous jazz musicians were grappling with the same dilemmas. That same year, 1974, Anthony Braxton, who also straddled free rhythms and meticulous compositions (and still does), released an album called In the Tradition. A few years later, Arthur Blythe put out an album with the same title. During the rest of that decade, and several years into the next, a movement emerged—critic Gary Giddins called it “neoclassical” jazz—in which young musicians fused their avant-garde spirits with traditional styles, structures, and songs.

It’s significant that Mingus chose tunes associated with Ellington’s big band to close out the concert. Other progressive jazz musicians of the time would have dismissed the idea of hosting a jam session as hopelessly old-hat and wouldn’t have thought for a moment of hauling out avatars of an earlier style—even if that style was once revolutionary—to swing it along. But Mingus saw himself as a successor to Ellington, a bridge between swing and what was coming next.

The quintet Mingus introduced at Carnegie Hall was an early—in retrospect, prescient—hybrid of these impulses. Drummer Dannie Richmond had been playing with Mingus off and on since 1957. Trumpeter Jon Faddis, a then-unknown 20-year-old substitute for an ailing Roy Eldridge (who had been slated to debut a suite that he’d composed), was a protégé—and dazzling knock-off—of Dizzy Gillespie. The other musicians were emerging avant-gardists: Tenor saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen would form (along with Richmond) one of the signature quartets of the ’80s (which started as a Mingus tribute band); baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett would soon co-start the brilliantly innovative World Saxophone Quartet. The combination of these various stylists playing in high form before a large, live, enthusiastic audience makes for a thrilling ride, the long solos and stretched interactions at once rambling and tight.

After the intermission, the three elders join in for the jam session: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, a Charlie Parker acolyte; multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a protean virtuoso who matched Adams’s eruptions, then spun them into his own moony orbit; and John Handy, who could fly with all circles. The tension pops and sizzles. Mingus controls the pace and supplies a supple anchor, assisted by Pullen, who fuses the freedom of Cecil Taylor with a backbone of R&B.

Adams and Puller backed Mingus on a few on a few Atlantic studio albums shortly before and after the concert: Mingus Moves, Changes One, Changes Two, all fine showpieces for a band that should have lasted longer. (Mingus died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979 at the age of 56.) But those albums lack the zesty let-‘er-rip adventurism of the Carnegie Hall concert. Nor do their ballads match the lusty passion of the live versions we hear on this set.

The Deluxe Edition is mastered from the original 16-track analog tapes—photographs of the reels appear inside the album’s handsome gatefold cover—and it sounds very much like a live jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. The ambience is cavernous (Carnegie wasn’t built for amplified bands), and when the music gets raucous, some threads get lost or tangled. But otherwise the instruments sound clear, brash, piercing, lovely, and real, and the air around them is palpable. The LPs sound a bit more naturally warm and 3D than the compact discs—and both sound way better than the original 1975 LP, which was teeth-gnashingly bright.

It is jarring to realize that the music on this album, though thoroughly modern, is almost 50 years old, and that all the musicians except Faddis (who wasn’t meant to be there, though he made a sensational impression that jump-started his career) and Handy (now 88) died long ago. Pullen and Adams, the members of Mingus’s last fulltime band, died in their early 50s—like Mingus himself, well before their primes. This is the magic of records: They bring the dead back to life. Mingus at Carnegie Hall: The Deluxe Edition is such a magic trick, and it lives up to the tradition.

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