Charles Mingus Revisited

By Michael E. Ross
Published July 1, 1996 10:32PM (UTC)
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On April 13, 1964, in Oslo, Eric Dolphy, the revered alto saxophonist
who helped usher in the avant-garde movement, told Charles Mingus that he
was leaving the Mingus group to pursue a solo career. That night, as a kind
of pre-departure tribute, that group performed "Goodbye Eric Dolphy, Hurry
Back," a song whose title was a strangely eerie echo of "Goodbye Pork Pie
Hat," the indelible Mingus classic mourning the death of Lester Young.

The new Mingus song, more bittersweet than he could know, would come
to serve as a musical epitaph: Dolphy would die in Berlin 10
weeks later at the age of 36. But during what would be Dolphy's final tour,
the song was also indicative of the bright possibilities of the future of
jazz, and of the fruitful relationship between Mingus and Dolphy.


Charles Mingus did not suffer fools gladly -- or anyone else, for that
matter. A composer and bandleader with a reputation for being as
tempestuous as he was musically astute, Mingus made his share of enemies,
but he could never be accused of not having a good sense of the talent in
the room. Throughout his early career he worked with Louis Armstrong, Art
Tatum, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Bud Powell and Duke Ellington, among

Mingus' choice of sidemen was equally impeccable: Booker Ervin, John
Handy, Dannie Richmond, Don Ellis, Roland Hanna and the intense,
preternaturally gifted Dolphy, whose flights of creative fancy
expanded the palette of Mingus' own sound and helped shift the format of
solo jazz performance from a sometimes rote mechanics to a more organic
approach to improvisation, one that broke away from the hard-bop traditions
of the '50s. In Dolphy, Mingus had found a fellow traveler, the sort of
kindred musical spirit that could provoke the best from him in any setting
-- especially in concert.

"Revenge!" captures the April 18, 1964 Paris performance, five days
after Dolphy announced his pending departure. The players were Mingus,
Dolphy, Richmond, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and pianist Jaki Byard.
Mingus' allegiance to the blues, and especially to Ellington, was
always present in his music. Those twin loyalties come through in several
tracks, among them "Peggy's Blue Skylight" and "Orange Was the Color of Her
Dress Then Blue Silk." Mingus, ever the wily magician lurking in the
background, sets the table, establishing the theme with subtle, powerful
bass playing. The music is lifted by Jordan's big, imposing tone, and
throughout by Dolphy, whose versatility shines on nearly every track --
his flute work opening "Meditations on Integration" gives the piece's
undercurrent of tension an airy tenderness.

Everyone gets his props: Jordan's rich, buttery saxophone, Richmond's
sturdy percussion, Byard's mad pianistics. Byard provides an extra melodic
dimension, sometimes with furious energy, sometimes borrowing from musical
Americana. And on "Orange . . . " and "Fables of Faubus," Dolphy plays with
inventiveness and fire. You can hear his apprenticeship with John Coltrane
and Ornette Coleman in the way he pushes against the
familiar motif; his dissonant squawks and voicelike phrasings, so
strategically placed, would help form the basis of the avant-garde jazz
movement, spawning, ultimately, a range of subversive talents, from Anthony
Braxton to John Zorn to Peter Apfelbaum.


A production error mars the album's legitimate historical resonance.
The opening track on the second disc, listed as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," is
actually "Goodbye Eric Dolphy, Hurry Back," and features an uncredited
Johnny Coles on trumpet. Joel Dorn, one of the record's producers, admitted
it was his mistake and said all would be made right on future copies of the
album. It's the one miscue on what otherwise is an inspired slice of jazz
history as well as a chance to reappraise both the compositional skills of
Mingus and the improvisational genius of Dolphy.

Sue Mingus, the widow of Charles Mingus, has made a provocative
sideline of going into record stores in Europe, searching the bins
for bootleg Mingus releases and then confiscating them right out of the
store. The Revenge! record label, she says (in the album's liner notes), was
started with the intent of finding these bootlegs and re-releasing
them legitimately. If this album is any indication of the Revenge! releases
to come, more power to 'em. Records like this -- proof of a lively clash
of titans, a musical document as passionate as they come -- are worth
paying for.

Michael E. Ross

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