Sunday, 26 May 2019

Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus

Provenance: This is the first jazz album I ever bought and it's entirely thanks to a friend I met at university, Mike.

I was in his room during the first year and we were chatting away about music. Despite christening me 'Hair Metal', a nickname that would stick for a good three years, we found each other fairly simpatico in terms of likes and dislikes. That is, until the subject of jazz arose.

'I don't think I like jazz,' I said. 'It's too complex.' It speaks to Mike's good taste and geniality that, instead of berating my ignorance, he loaded Mingus Ah Um into his stereo and pressed play.

In only a few short moments I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And by Toutatis, it swung like nothing else I'd experienced before! After allowing me the time to listen to a few cuts, Mike turned to me and said 'so what is so difficult about this?'

Nothing. Like an idiot, I thought jazz was either some lame-ass big-band granddad music played by dorks in bow ties, or it was a cigarette paper away from the pretentious gubbins parodied on The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club' skits. (NB: jazz can also be both of these things, much like rock music can encapsulate something as wonderful as Terry Reid's River and Kiss' Hot in the Shade).

Review: The last time I reviewed a jazz album I spent an entire paragraph complaining about how difficult I find it to write about this particular genre. I'll spare you the plaint once more, but suffice to say, I feel lost at sea with anything that falls outside of the popular music paradigm. Feel free to go back and read about my utter lack of qualification to write about jazz right now; but if you're feeling particularly masochistic, my friend, read on!

I have a clutch of albums from bandleader (and double bass player) Charles Mingus but this was my first, and still my favourite. From the off, those very first few notes in 'Better Git It In Your Soul', one feels a sense of weight and pregnancy. It's as if the band are straining at their leashes, or waiting for the traps to open. Sure enough, after those first few establishing motifs on bass and piano, the band kicks in with a swagger that is unmatched in almost anything I've ever heard. It's post-bop but in a way that sounds directly plugged into gospel and the blues, riding a tricksy 6/8 time signature but shimmying and simmering along to something elemental and raw.

From that most ebullient number, Mingus Ah Um shifts down into something more mellow and elegiac, the beautiful 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', Mingus' tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. A composition that's been covered by a fair few artists, my exposure to 'Goodbye...' first came about thanks to Jeff Beck's Wired album. It was the standout cut on that LP, but here, with horns taking centre stage, it's a whole new universe. In a world where the tenor saxophone is (too) often deployed for its potential to bring a note of brashness to proceedings, it's a revelation to hear it moaning the melody with a rare solemnity.

I vividly recall what Mike said about the third track on Mingus Ah Um, 'Boogie Stop Shuffle'; every time he put it on, it brought to mind a car chase scene in some 1940s gangland caper. He's spot on. As with 'Better Git It In Your Soul', 'Boogie Stop Shuffle' really shifts, motoring along with the kind of propulsion I had hitherto believed didn't exist in jazz. It's pretty close to a headbanger. It's enough to make a guy want to invest in a zoot suit and Tommy gun combination.

Mingus also excels when stepping into the jazz tradition of paying respects to other composers. Both 'Open Letter to Duke' (Duke Ellington) and 'Jelly Roll' (Jelly Roll Morton) paraphrase elements of each musician's work. 'Open Letter to Duke' especially does a fine job, starting off at a clip before gearing down to an easeful stroll, nodding to Ellington's ability to introduce shades of nuance and mood to the swing palette. 'Jelly Roll' is a little stranger; it's like some kind of ragtime fever dream, both utterly familiar and non-traditional all at once. It's a hell of a lot of fun, I'll say that!

Perhaps the album's centrepiece, however, is the eight-minute 'Fables of Faubus'. I had initially believed that the title came from antiquity ('Faubus' looks plausibly Latin in origin) but curiosity led me to learning of a much more contemporary source of inspiration. It turns out Mingus was referencing an unpleasant little shit called Orval Faubus; no doubt familiar to Americans but a name that would elude the majority of Brits. What he is associated with, however, is relatively well-known; he was the Governor of Arkansas who called in the National Guard in 1957 to prevent African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School after a federal order to desegregate schools.

Thus 'Fables of Faubus' introduces a comic-buffo theme from the start, which crops up every now and again almost as a refrain to Faubus himself. The changing moods and time signatures within 'Fables...', which nevertheless always return to its opening theme, means that it could be read as a tone poem of sorts. Despite the events that undoubtedly fired Mingus to write the piece (Mingus Ah Um was released in 1959), motifs that bespeak sadness or frustration never linger too long; instead, 'Fables...' is defiant and satirical. Even the mock-heroic title jabs at the pomposity of the objectionable Faubus.

In conclusion; an amazing album, that came hot on the heels of another landmark, Blues and Roots. Whilst that one was a celebration of blues and gospel music, Mingus Ah Um twists some of those influences into a thoroughly modern and adventurous sound. I'm no jazz expert (being the son-in-law of a professor of jazz music has proved humbling at times) but this was the gateway drug for me to go out and explore artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and more. With the live-action Aladdin just released into cinemas, I can't pass up the opportunity to suggest that this was a whole new world to me, and one that I don't intend to return from any time soon.

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