The best of Charles Mingus: Five essential tracks that are as vital as ever
The Jumpin’ Blues
Mingus played Toronto at the famous Massey Hall concert of 1953, joining Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach. He recorded that concert, but later had to dub in the bass because it was inaudible on the original tapes. Around this time, Mingus and Roach started their own independent label, Debut, to record their music and that of other young artists; the Massey Hall concert was Debut’s first release. Debut lasted only until 1957, and only released two dozen albums, but they made their mark — and most of them are still in print.
Better Git It in Your Soul
Mingus moved to New York in the late 1950s and formed the Jazz Workshop, where his greatest work took shape. He recorded for Columbia and Impulse, music of deep spirit, sweeping power and lyricism. Among the finest of these albums is Mingus Ah Um, whose lead track Better Git It in Your Soul is a gospel-like, exultant shout.
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
Mingus’s gifts as a melodist were sometimes in the shadow of his titanic, often furious personality. No song demonstrates this better than Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, probably the best-known of his compositions. Also from Mingus Ah Um, it’s Mingus’s tribute to the great tenorman Lester Young, for whom the pork pie hat was a trademark. Aside from Mingus’s own recordings, it’s been recorded by close to 300 jazz artists. Joni Mitchell formed a close friendship with Mingus late in his life, when he was dying from ALS, and wrote lyrics for Pork Pie and several other Mingus compositions, which appear on her album Mingus.
Another Mingus composition to draw the attention of a major artist is Hora Decubitis, originally appearing on Mingus’s 1963 album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Like Better Git It, it’s strong, driving music. Recorded in 2004 with lyrics by Costello and the Metropole Orkest led by Vince Mendoza at the North Sea Jazz Festival, it’s an arrangement entirely worthy of the composer — big band meets rock group meets symphony orchestra.
All along the way, Mingus played bass — constantly and with extraordinary power and skill. Some of the musicians who spent time at the Jazz Workshop called it the “jazz sweatshop.” Although Mingus slowed down somewhat in the late 1960s, his musical horizons kept on growing and brought him to the studio in 1962 with his longtime collaborator Max Roach and his great influence, Duke Ellington, for an album called Money Jungle. Although the setting is unusual for Duke — he rarely recorded away from his band — the playing is compelling. For fans of Duke and Mingus alike, this album is a must-listen.
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