The Dynasty of Mingus
For the past year and a half, I've been spending most of my time between 1922 and 1979--the years of Charles Mingus's birth and death, since I'm writing his biography, due to be published next year. And as if by some Romantic magic of macrocosm mirroring the micro, Mingus-related CD reissues have been cascading into the bins.
Aces Back to Back (32 Jazz) collects the largely orchestral work by Rahsaan Roland Kirk between 1969 and 1976, the year after a stroke paralyzed half his body. Mingus hired Kirk in 1960, when Mingus and erstwhile colleague David Amram caught Kirk's first Big Apple sets at the uptown 125 Club. The ambitious scope of these four CDs demands patience and attention. Like Whitman and Mingus, Kirk is vast and contains multitudes, and here they get plenty of room to jostle. The string-laden tracks, especially "Left & Right," pick up where Bird left off. An r&b/gospel turn like "Hot Cha" foreshadows the serious fun of Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy.
For, like Bird and Mingus and other postwar jazzers, Kirk saw music as a continuum. He led the Jazz and People's Movement, which picketed TV and radio shows to protest the lack of black players and music in the studios. Kirk understood that a central point of the postwar US cultural renaissance, spearheaded by jazz, was to assert black understanding and mastery of all of America's history and culture. He was, like many in that golden age of jazz, rethinking the music's history and structure, and thus retuning its directions. Think of Hegel's master/slave dialectic--who winds up with the real power, and why--and you get the gist of Kirk's panoramic demonstration of authority.
These discs aren't necessarily Kirk fans' faves, like the swashbuckling We Free Kings (Mercury) and The Inflated Tear (Rhino), but they do make the case that he was more than a brilliant, if completely outrageous, instrumentalist.
Kirk appears on Passions of a Man (Rhino), the six-CD box set devoted to Mingus's peak years (1956-61), on Atlantic Records. Let's cut to the chase: This music is among Mingus's most vibrant and popular and influential, and with damn good reason. His mix-and-match compositional strategies yielded a harvest of wondrous sounds that were like nothing else. There are window-rattling infernos like the gospel/blues blowout he'd pioneered ("Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," "Better Get Hit in Your Soul")--and which dominated jazz sales in this period thanks to later chart-toppers by the likes of Cannonball Adderley. There's beat-style jazz poetry ("The Clown," with Jean Shepherd) Mingus also helped pioneer in the fifties with pals like Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, Jack Kerouac and the Living Theater. There are the long narrative tales ("Pithecanthropus Erectus"), which reach beyond Ellingtonian suites in structure and in their development of jazz-derived, extended forms.
Mingus, like Kirk and his idol, Ellington, didn't so much break down categorical labels as magisterially ignore them. The sweep of Passions is exhilarating, scary, dazzling, daunting, inviting, triumphant. But be warned: The box set also pulls the individual albums apart and puts them in chronological track order. Collectors and archivists love that, and critics can put it to use. Lesser mortals might want to wait until these albums are reissued in thier individual form, to hear them the way they were shaped by Mingus in the studio.
Another reason not to rush to buy the boxed set: The archival/discographic info in the booklet is useful, but the biographical summary is error-riddled, and too many of the interpretations of Mingus's music are wrongheaded and spongy. The final CD's unedited, hour-plus conversation between Mingus and producer friend Nesuhi Ertegun, however, helps counterbalance these shortcomings.