‘Most of my heroes ain’t appeared on no stamp’, one of my heroes rapped, well this one of mine has.
Charles Mingus, define. Bit of a tricky exam question that one. Genius double bass player, who was twice the size of God and five times angrier? Dubious autobiographer and unsubstantiated pimp? well, long after all the fighting tales and borderline pornographic memoirs have gone south, we’re left, as always, with the music. Charles Mingus left behind an astonishing array of albums, full of wild left turns, driving rhythms and bits that just shouldn’t fit together, but do perfectly. It’s all good folks, all of it; although I should declare an interest, I grew up in a house with a portrait of Mingus on the wall, so my admiration could just be a product of childhood indoctrination.
But anyway let’s turn away from all the most celebrated Mingus albums* and have a look at my current obsession which is Mingus Plays Piano from 1963. Now if this LP came out today you’d have to retitle it Spoiler Alert: Mingus Plays Piano, because basically that’s what he does. Solo. In fact Mingus Plays Piano should qualify for a rare double spoiler award because it has a subtitle too – Spontaneous Compositions And Improvisations, because basically that’s what he does. Brilliantly.
Mingus’ first musical love was the ‘cello, which he couldn’t pursue to the highest level simply because it was impossible at the time for a black man to have made a living from classical music and so jazz was almost a default outlet for his talents. He earned accolades for his astonishing ensemble compositions that somehow harnessed all manner of disparate modes and players into a cohesive, swinging whole and as a ferocious bandleader/taskmaster. Mingus Plays Piano is the antithesis of the albums that made his name and form his canon, it’s just him and the piano. The result is far gentler, less compulsive propulsive but more impulsive. It is as though without worrying about putting others through their paces the force that propelled his music could be dissipated and the emphasis put on nuance and touch.
Mingus was, by his own admission, no Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Art Tatum** or Thelonious Monk. In particular he couldn’t summon the classical chops of the first two to the keyboard and he could never match the swing and space of the latter – no disgrace, who could? But Mingus seems to play piano straight from the heart, someone wrote that it was like hearing him think aloud and I can’t think of a better way to put it myself.
Opener ‘Myself When I Am Real’ is a lilting, gentle introduction to the man and the music, characteristically turbulent sections vie with gentle flights of lyricism for dominance and we are left with what may well be an accurate musical portrait of a Mingus state of mind, ending with a coda that almost waltzes away from the listener. The Gershwin standard ‘I Can’t Get Started’ displays an even gentler touch, Mingus asserted that he never bought sheet music – if he ever played a standard it was because it was good enough to have stuck with him.
Now I’m a bit of a sucker for Roland Kirk and I’m also a bit of a sucker for ‘Roland Kirk’s Message’ here, it is the first tune to show a bluesy, earthy touch on Mingus Plays Piano. There is a real directness about this track that’s to be savoured. Another real favourite is ‘Orange Was the Colour of her Dress, Then Silk Blues’ – one of those belting titles that only Charles Mingus in his pomp could have conjured. At times this track feels like a bespoke soundtrack for an elegant love story set in Manhattan, or even Paris, but then we get flourishes of agitation and even some great humming at one point, it’s just sumptuous and luxurious but still not quite safe.
Another interesting point is the manner in which pure blues chords break through the shimmering surface of this and other tracks here, grounding them. Nat Hentoff in his sleevenotes (Sleevenotes!! Sleevenotes!!) says, and who am I to disagree,
I could go on like this, but I’ll spare you. I bought this in 2003 to replace a taped copy that a friend had given me and increasingly it has become my go to jazz piano album, for relaxation / contemplation / destressification purposes at the moment. You can swoon to it, read to it, sleep to it*^, or let the musicologist in you run riot spotting bits in the final track ‘Compositional Theme Story: Medleys, Anthems and Folklore’.
Anyway, all that aside you have to love an LP which can boast a track titled, ‘She’s Just Miss Popular Hybrid’. No that’s not a rhetorical thingy, that’s a direct 1537 order, you have to!
P.S – Way to go HMV; do you agree with me that this is the most inappropriate fucking advertising you can imagine in an LP inner sleeve! If he saw it, he’d have wanted to kill. The fact I own it, is another matter.
PPS – If you have a strong stomach for icky bits and exaggerated sexual boasting then I’d really recommend Mingus’ autobiography Beneath The Underdog; leave aside the fact that apparently most of it is of dubious verisimilitude then it is a bit of an insight into the workings of a pretty one-off mind.
*I’m not being paranoid, but reviewing one of those is just what they’d expect me to do. This’ll show ’em, they’ll never expect this.
**who was someone who helped him learn piano.
*^which I mean in an entirely complimentary way.