Bassist instinct

Charles Mingus had prodigious appetites, a passion for justice and a filthy temper. He once smashed a treasured double bass on the table of a group of loud jazz club customers and was sacked by Duke Ellington after an onstage fight. He poured his entire being into music, harangued audiences, and drove musicians to the limits of their endurance. When he died in 1979, aged 56, he left more than 300 compositions, from orchestral works to pieces for solo piano.

His studio recordings for Columbia, Atlantic and Impulse were reissued this year but some of his most adventurous work exists only in recordings of live performances. This particularly applies to the mid-1960s, even though both jazz and Mingus were on something of a roll. The ever-temperamental composer, then with Impulse Records, over-reached himself trying to renegotiate weekly royalty payments, and found himself out of contract. Fortunately, Mingus was embarking on his first concert tours, and some of the gigs were recorded with a future release in mind. Mail order jazz specialists Mosaic have issued five of those concerts to mark what would have been the American’s 90th birthday year, 2012.

The seven-CD set Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 catches Mingus at a creative peak, with a shifting cast of personnel – he called one line-up “My Favourite Quintet” – and, for the first time, presenting extended works on a concert platform.

Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922, and raised in a religious household in Watts, Los Angeles. Formally trained in cello and schooled in composition, he switched to bass and jazz when he was 16 – the then segregated orchestras were not a career option. By the time he moved to New York, in his early thirties, he’d played with Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And it’s all in his music, plain to hear.

There are accelerations and shouts, complex structures and strange juxtapositions of key. Tradition and the cutting edge go hand in hand. His music is so strong that it is easy to overlook the brilliance, virtuosity and power of his bass playing.

The collection opens with solo stride piano from Jackie Byard – Mingus is playing a fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at New York Town Hall, and wants to break his non-jazz audience in gently.

But soon passion and commitment come to the fore, heightened by Mingus’s knowledge that Eric Dolphy, a key player and friend, is leaving the band after their upcoming European tour – “So Long Eric” is played in tribute. (The saxophonist died in Berlin soon afterwards of a mis-diagnosed diabetic coma.)

Mingus’s music was in constant flux, always adapting to political events and changing personal circumstances. The multi-hued epic “Meditations On Integration” gets several outings here, each one distinct. There’s the 25-minute Duke Ellington medley from the Monterey concert of September 1964 and a riveting 30-minute workout on “Fables of Faubus” from Amsterdam a few months earlier. And, among two hours of previously unreleased material, there’s “Copa City Titty”, namechecked for a Queens club-owner, but written over 20 years earlier to celebrate the birth of fellow bassist Oscar Pettiford’s son.

Mingus’s good fortune didn’t last. In 1966 he was evicted from his Manhattan studio, and faded from the scene. He reappeared, invigorated, in the 1970s, but contracted a debilitating nerve disease and died in January 1979. His musical legacy is immense, and seethes with rage, frustration and joy. And few composers in any field can match the tenderness of his depictions of love.

‘Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65’ can be ordered through Mingus’s Atlantic recordings are available as ‘Mingus: Essential Albums’, released by Warner.

The Impulse recording ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ has also recently been reissued

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