Charles Mingus ‘Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975’ 4CD (Sunnyside) 5/5

This a big and sprawling release in many ways. It features two live performances by Charles Mingus in Bremen just over a decade apart. And these performances are definitely in the tradition of live extended tracks – particularly the 1964 set. So there is a lot of material to digest and think about.

Approaching this set is quite daunting. In the sleeve notes Bret Sjerven takes the approach of focusing on the differences in reception Mingus got from the audiences on the two dates. This does give us some descriptive background detail but does give to a large extent the impression that the better reception for the second gig somehow reflects the consolidation of Mingus’s reputation over those 10 years. That’s a bit of a stretch as the audience the first time around was about 200 souls in a studio setting, who at best guess would be mainly white and comparatively unused to his music – at least live – as this was his first German concert. The second gig was attended by 400 or so in a concert setting.

Radio Bremen Jazz Department head Siegfried Schmidt-Joos one would think knew the music better for it was he who set up the gig and invited Mingus. But curiously he got to review his own gig as a freelance for Bremen’s Weser Kurier newspaper and seemingly had issues with Mingus’s approach and attitude to the audience. But surely that was the point, not to realise Mingus was no shrinking violet and what’s more, was in the vanguard of artists in the Civil Rights Movement, seems perverse even for that time. So reading one of his quoted comments from the review is shocking: “If Charles Mingus wants to give more concerts on this side of the ocean, he will have to get used to Europe. Not Europe to Mingus.” And he wasn’t the only reviewer expressing such views Werner Burkhardt in Die Welt: “(Mingus) wants to proclaim a message of freedom and renewal. We understand him very well, but doubt whether his behaviour will really benefit his cause.”

So, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight and more discussion of issues of equality, rights and racism, we can see that these responses are exactly what Mingus would have wanted to expose and to firmly express that he was stating his vision and views through is music and to show that in matters of race and identity it was not black people who needed to change but the ingrained and colonially driven attitudes of white people.

So it’s rather odd that Bret Sjerven writing now does not mention these issues and goes on to describe the reception of the second concert as down to changes of critical perception in purely musical terms: “The only thing that seems to have changed was the attitude of the mind critical, as ten years of achievement had cemented Mingus’s legacy in Europe.” This is particularly perverse as only a partial list of Mingus’s recording up to 1964 shows: Pithecanthropus Erectus 1956, The Clown 1957, Mingus Ah Um 1959, Blues & Roots 1960, Mingus Dynasty 1960, Pre-Bird (aka Mingus Revisited) 1961, Oh Yeah 1962, Tijuana Moods 1962 [recorded 1957], The Complete Town Hall Concert 1962, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady 1963, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus 1964. ‘nuff said. But apart from, in my view, this odd approach the rest of the sleeve notes do give us an insight into the music from a mostly musical criticism approach.

So what about the music? This is the first time I have had an opportunity to hear in full a Charles Mingus concert. I have, of course, heard the key studio recordings which are fantastic. The constraints of time and space mean that studio recordings are usually focused and tight. But these sets remind me of seeing other live gigs back in the day where the band is freer to stretch out. In smaller venues these days this doesn’t happen as much – bands tend to keep to shorter versions pretty well as they record them.

To be frank live shows for me could back then be too stretched out to the point of indulgence. And often sound quality was not always great. Fortunately sound is not a problem on these sets as they were recorded for broadcast. It perhaps a more open sound than you would typically get in the studio but the quality is very good.

To put the set into context they play Fables of Faubus in both ’64 and ’75 33 minutes the first time and 15 the second. The studio recording on Mingus Ah Um is 8 minutes… The 64 set is almost entirely made up of longer workouts. Hope So Eric is 26 minutes, Parkerania 22 and Meditations on Integration 25. Jaki Byard’s Piano Solo and Sophisticated Lady weigh in at an almost insignificant 5 and 4 minutes respectively. Only Sue’s Changes in the ’75 set reaches 33 minutes.

Quite apart from anything else, this presents some issues particularly for the first set as the longer tracks are effectively half a full CD and are virtually symphonic or at the very least variations on a theme.

Bremen April 16th 1964

Line-up: Johnny Coles trumpet, Eric Dolphy alto sax, flute & bass clarinet, Clifford Jordan tenor sax, Jaki Byard piano, Charles Mingus bass, Dannie Richmond drums.

In structure this set has two extended tracks Hope So Eric and Fables of Faubus at the start and finishing with two more Parkerania and Meditations on Integration with the two shorter tracks sandwiched in between – a Piano Solo by Byard and a version of Sophisticated Lady by the full band.

And I think this says something about Mingus and his musical approach. Yes, there are strong politics in there and yes, the music swings (and how!) and it also swings through bop and post-bop towards the Avant-Garde but at root, he fully respects the tradition and the history of the music up to that point. Judging by the sleeve notes the concert played out without a break so these two tracks provided a kind of intermission or a coda for the first part and an overture for the second.

I may have intimated earlier that there was indulgence here but let’s knock that one on the head. Once you get your head around what’s going on here and the structure of the performance, which I’m pretty sure Mingus was totally in command of, it all comes into focus.
And my first focus apart from the obvious one of Mingus directing and underpinning everything is Jaki Byard. Wow, I should have known this but what a player, encapsulating a whole range of jazz styles and history and really one of the standouts in this set and one of the major reasons why this band so much bigger and broader than just a sextet.

The ’64 set starts with Hope So Eric (also called So Long Eric) and a typical Mingus bass solo lead in with just some spare Byard chords before the band comes in with the theme, it’s apparently a tribute to Eric Dolphy as he had decided to stay in Europe. Johnny Coles then plays a bluesy solo before Mingus picks up the pace with Coles almost referencing When the Saints Go Marching In. Then the band starts in with that signature Mingus orchestration under the trumpeter. The pace shifts back down with Coles extending until at five or so minutes in Byard takes over with just Mingus and some Richmond accents. The pianist gets busier and bluesier and Richmond increases his hits. After some trills its Dolphy’s turn. Dolphy heats it up before again we shift up the gears again. Around halfway Mingus takes a solo at the end of which he trades breaks with Richmond who is the only player apart from Mingus to appear in both the ’64 and ’75 sets. Mingus goes into a walking bass style to introduce Dolphy who takes things to a more Avant-Garde feel with honks and squeaks and a higher register ride into the last few minutes and a final restatement of the theme, and an almost false ending with a slow at first then accelerating train to finish. The applause is extended as Mingus references the soloists with no hint of rancour.

Then we are into that extended version of Fables of Faubus one of Mingus’s most political statements. Dolphy’s bass clarinet is prominent at the start in that so well known theme that characterises Governor Orval Faubus as both fascist and idiotic figure of fun. For it was he who in 1957 sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of the Little Rock High School. To its shame Columbia refused to have a version with lyrics on Mingus Ah Um – it was only later on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus on Candid that they had a recorded airing.

For the record and because of recent events in the US worth it’s quoting the lyrics here (although they have varied over the versions recorded):

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.

Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan).

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower.
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-O, Hello.

The instrumental version here is spectacular with the full range of the instrumentation, quiet to loud, fast to slow, straight ahead to pretty free improv and driving funk and blues. Byard provides an inventive piano solo with the band sitting out before they re-assemble accompanied by some rocking piano chords and melody.

We are then into the “interlude” of the two shorter tracks first Byard’s solo feature roaming across jazz piano history in it’s long for a solo but short in this context at nearly five minutes.

Sophisticated Lady is equally concise with it being a bass solo by Mingus with some spare piano accompaniment which leads straight into Parkeraina where the band kicks in with the charge led by Dolphy including quotes from Ornithology and 52nd Street Theme if I’m not mistaken. Dolphy is quite extraordinary in his inventiveness across this track a fitting homage to Bird.

Meditations on Integration is back to altogether harder-edged material with its opening ethereal them with Dolphy on flute being a calm before the storm which rolls in with first Byard on piano and then a signature speeding up and slowing down with Dolphy switching to bass clarinet. We also get some Milesian trumpet from Johnny Coles including a Bye Bye Blackbird quote.

And what a goodbye – take a break that is just the end of the Bremen ’64 set…

Bremen July 9th 1975

Line-up: Jack Walrath trumpet, George Adams tenor sax & vocals, Don Pullen piano, Charles Mingus bass, Dannie Richmond drums.

The return visit has only Dannie Richmond on drums as well as Mingus from the earlier set. This time as previously mentioned only the first track Sue’s Changes approaches the length and breadth of the four key tracks from ’64.

Written for his wife, Changes starts sweetly with Walrath leading on trumpet before another signature speeded up unison theme. Adams gets to shine and there’s one of those exploratory quieter passages with Pullen and Mingus. Its Pullen who leads an increase in tempo, volume and a move into freer style with Adams later doing a honking and squealing free passage of his own with the band coming back in before we are back into a sweeter feel contrasting with boppish elements. It finishes freer with the horns to the front. For Harry Carney – dedicated to Ellington’s barite=one sax player – is a Caravanesque tune started by Mingus’s beautifully strong bass and Walrath’s trumpet. Adams then gets as close as you can to baritone with a wide-ranging and punchy tenor solo with Richmond beating out a Latin feel. Pullen is also punchy in his lengthy solo keeping the swing going with some low down bass notes. Later he takes over the underlying bass theme while Mingus solos in a high register.

Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA seems prescient even now given what’s been going down in the last four years over there. The whole band get a workout with Pullen again prominent. Black Bats and Poles is a raucous tune that I haven’t heard before written by Jack Walrath with Adams wild and Pullen driving.

The 1975 version of Fables of Faubus does have some of the lyrics quoted earlier in the review and is all the better for it. The addition of the lyrics together with it being more urgent and concise makes it rather more hard-hitting.

We are shifted into ballad territory for Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love – a tribute to the Duke who had recently passed. It’s a loving and gently swinging affair. Adams again takes us into a Carneyesque register on the tenor and Pullen trips lightly in his solo.

Cherokee for these two concerts is almost gone before it starts at less than two minutes and is a humorous take with Adams and Walrath briefly squeaking the theme. It sounds like that was the end as the applause is long and rhythmic. But the band is back for Remember Rockefeller at Attica is another of Mingus’ references to racist and violent events this time Governor Rockefeller’s decision to send in the State Police to Attica Penitentiary. It’s a pretty straight-ahead up-tempo number with a nice contribution from Pullen and at last an extended solo from Richmond.

Devil Blues ends the set and starts with another of Mingus’s string-bending solos which shifts into a walking blues feel with Pullen comping. Then Adams shouts the lyrics followed by a rangy solo by Walrath, a final Pullen section and a wail from Adams. Adams then improvises more lyrics – a funky way to wind up the proceedings.

It’s hard to do justice to such an extensive set of material. It’s not always an easy listen but then it’s Mingus so why would it be? And you need multiple listens to appreciate what’s here. I would have loved to have been at either of these gigs – it must have been intense and ultimately rewarding.

Brian Homer

Read als:
Charles Mingus ‘Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden’ 5LP/5CD (BBE/Strata/Sue Mingus Music) 5/5
Charles Mingus ‘Mingus Moods’ 4CD (Proper) 5/5
Charles Mingus ‘Mingus Ah Um’ 180g Vinyl (Jazz Wax) 5/5