Here’s my favourite Mingus LP and so, by definition, near enough my favourite jazz LP, Blues & Roots. Prior to Mingus cutting this album in 1959 some crazy fools sniped that he didn’t swing enough (I mean this is Charles Mingus we’re talking about here furfuckssake! Cretins) and so Mingus, in his own words:
‘…wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I’ve grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed’
I genuinely can’t think of an album that swings more than Blues & Roots, or in such myriad ways.
Case in point, just take the closer ‘E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too’. The ensemble swing this babe of a tune like nine Sinatras being drowned in a sack. I just love the absolute breakneck pace of the piece, Mingus shouted exhortations in the background, everyone just about keeping up, rattling off some truly inspired solos but keeping the piece’s groove anchored in the blues sound somehow – which saves it from being a fast technical ride on the headache express.
In fact that latter point is the whole splendid genius* of Blues & Roots in a highly perceptive, well-put, nutshell. Jazz, by dint of it’s often dizzying complexity and rather niche place in the music world today, can be and can be seen to be, a very cerebral affair, all head no hips. This album puts the lie to that rather emphatically. Anchored, grounded, earthed call it what you will, this is music that tastes of soil and root-stock – you could wiggle your cudooblies real good to the like of ‘Moanin’ all night long, and then some. This is jazz at its’ sweatiest and realistestimuss, this is jazz smelling like it’s put in a hard shift in the fields before the recording session and, more importantly, this is jazz feeling decidedly horny in church.
Ah yes, church. Mingus references it above and in particular on the titanic opening track, ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’. You want groove, you want a Gospel and heat stroke induced fervour and you want commitment with a damnably big ‘C’ and this delivers. Speaking of a damnably big ‘C’ the track and thus the album opens just the way it should, with Charles Mingus wringing the neck of his bass, all alone for a precious few seconds before the whole ensemble lurch into the road weaving like a tipsy New Orleans funeral procession, packing a whole trunkful of righteous sway. The players take their solos in exemplary fashion, the piano of Horace Parlan is particularly fine and the whole is chivvied along by Mingus’ shouting, whooping and possibly yelping in tongues – the part where it all breaks down for hand claps and a bit of extra holy rolling almost gives me a seizure of pure joy, every single time.
Blues & Roots is far from a one-trick pony though, nope this horsey has a whole cart load of ’em. Of which, ‘Cryin Blues’ is a definite favourite. The baritone sax playing of Pepper Adams is a wondrous thing to feel and feel it you do on this cut. Needless to say this track is a showcase for Mr Mingus’ bass virtuosity but as always it never comes over as domineering or showboating at all and the moment at which the piano of Horace Parlan takes over lead duties is nothing short of sublime, if it wasn’t for the fact that the bit where all the band come loping into view after his solo was even more stirring, then it would be my favourite moment on the whole album.
‘Moanin’ itself is probably the most famous track on Blues & Roots** and when I get my world busting primetime TV series I’ll use it as my theme tune. Does it swing? like a drunken locomotive rollocking on down the line. Does it have the best trombone sound on it ever? yup, the muted ‘bones gliding in at the point where the beat slinks alley-cat like around the corner certainly qualifies as that for me. Does it have impassioned blues hollerin’? Hell yes it does, Mingus sounds like a demonic railroad conductor screaming out the stations in the background. Mingus’ own playing is never really foregrounded here but it drives this track faster and harder than ever before, anchoring everything deep down below. Roots? forget the underdog, these roots are far lower than him. This track is pure perfection, maybe pure perfection +1.
On ‘Tensions’ you can hear the various elements of the track stacked up and leaning against each other, like a house of cards, the discord almost collapsing the whole until everything drops away from the bass, which saves the day – natch. An absolutely sublime alto sax solo from Jackie McLean eases in like a shaft of pure light as the rhythm builds beneath and so by the time Booker Ervin’s tenor sax hoves into view, the titular tensions have been all resolved and the track drives forwards in delicious harmony. Mingus’ tribute to Jelly Roll Morton is a deliciously old-time flavoured slice of, umm, jazz cake, written in the man’s style how could it help but swing as gracefully as you please?
Blues & Roots is an absolute triumph, I genuinely don’t think music gets much better than this. It is dizzyingly complex, yet wonderfully simplistic in intent; dazzlingly virtuoso-istic, yet never intimidating; head heart and hips all the way, but mostly heart. Mingus was a colossus, quite literally and to my mind Blues & Roots was when he ascended to the realm of the gods, there to roam the Elysian Fields for all eternity, menacing the occasional dryad.
PS. By a weird coincidence I actually bought this LP on 29 January 2001. I know this because I put little stickers inside them to tell me things like that, I’m not proud of that and I would quite like to be normal now.
PPS: My version is part of some Atlantic Records reissue project where they reissued a lot of his work in 1976 with extra shiny cut-out covers, not a great idea, but it was a cheap find. More interestingly is the fact that Claude Nobs was the consultant for Atlantic who put the series together – founder of the Montreuz Jazz festival and more importantly for us rockers the chap of ‘Smoke On The Water’ fame, ‘Funky Claude was running in and out pulling kids out the ground’.
*hey, ‘genius’ is a term you can use very legitimately around Mingus without any fear of hyperbole.
**I’m sure it was used on a beer advert the other day.