Continuing their excellent series of box set anthologies, Proper this time around have focused upon the late 1950s and early 1960 recordings of bassist, composer and leader Charles Mingus and where this compilation wins hands down on previous attempts is in it cutting across major and independent labels alike, and being reasonably comprehensive within these dates, though it should be stated from the off that not all the albums are reproduced in their entirety. The result is a genuinely reflective feel of how Mingus sounded in the four years up to 1960 when his music was evolving at such a rapid pace.
It should be immediately pointed out that the earliest recordings here date from 1956/7 and they are a splendid trio of ‘Pithecanthropus ‘Erectus’, contained here in its entirety and worth every penny, ‘Tijuana Moods’ and ‘East Coasting’ with contrasting moods. The second is one of the most evocative of all Mingus albums with a strong Latin undercurrent throughout and wonderfully depicts the scene in across the border Mexico with ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance’ reaching a cacophony of sound to reproduce the chaotic vice of a Mexican bordello and some fabulous individual and ensemble brass playing. The piece, ‘Los Mariachis’, comes in a close second. In a less frenetic vein, but no less enthralling is ‘East Coasting’ which is notable for the presence of pianist Bill Evans in a bop-inflected mood of one of his major influencers, Bud Powell, and the impressionistic ‘Celia’ is a highlight that in many respects foreshadows the composition ‘Self Portrait in Three Colours’ on ‘Mingus Ah Um’. An Atlantic outing from 1959, ‘Blues and Roots’, is one of the most intense recordings the Mingus band ever laid down and yet is still steeped in the blues and this features stunning work from the horn section comprising among others tenorist Booker Ervin, altoist Shafi Hadi and Pepper Adams on baritone saxophone who all shine. Two of the most memorable pieces here are ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ and the irrepressible ‘Moanin’. However, probably the most famous of all recordings contained within the box set are the duo of albums the leader cut for Columbia and they capture Mingus at his peak of creativity and, interestingly, were among his very best sellers. From ‘Mingus Ah Um”, ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ is a perennial favourite and an ideal way for listeners new to jazz to ingratiate themselves into modern jazz without feeling too alienated while the soulful ‘Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘Better Git in your soul’ are all-time classics. ‘Mingus Dynasty’ repeats the formula with an even stronger to the orchestrations of Duke Ellington and includes such endearing works as ‘Gunslinging Bird’ and the reposing ‘Diana’ while there are equally fine covers of the Duke’sMood Indigo’ and ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’.
The final album showcased, ‘Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus’, provides another facet to Mingus tempestuous recording career for it was recorded on Nat Hentoff’s independent Candid label and, in general, was a riposte to the increasing commercialisation of jazz which some musicians and aficionados at the time perceived as compromising the integrity of the music. Mingus was among the ‘rebels’ who boycotted the official Newport Jazz Festival that year and instead set up their own alternative festival. Among the classic numbers Mingus recorded for Candid, the original version of ‘Fables of Faubus’ takes pride of place and its damning indictment of southern racism against African-Americans is sadly all too relevant in American society today several decades on. In a typically controversial, yet always entertaining and amusing vein, the intriguingly titled, ‘All the things you could have been by now if Sigmund Freud’s wife had been your mother’ captures the mood of Mingus to perfection and he was of course brilliantly aided by a fabulous line-up that included Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Ted Curson and the ever-present Danny Richmond.
Excellent and incisive sleeve notes round out what is quite simply yet another outstanding re-issue from Proper and at a bargain price to boot. No bonus cuts, but the albums are reproduced in their entirety and speak for themselves. Those seeking complete Columbia sides should check out the 2CD fiftieth-anniversary edition and then move on to Mingus’ mid-1960s opus ‘Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’. Completists will want the Atlantic albums on the major Rhino box set, or on a budget the handy 5 CD ‘Original Albums Series box set.