Saturday, May 5, 2012

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

In January 1963, bassist and composer Charles Mingus took an eleven-piece ensemble into a studio and recorded music intended for a ballet and the resulting Impulse! Records album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, is a staggering recording rich with textures, colors, rhythms and solos that make it a unique and involving experience.

It is also an album that can't be appreciated as background music, played while you're doing something else.  It calls for a concentrated listen, following Mingus' solid bass playing, the interplay of the horns (trumpet, trombone, saxes, flute, tuba), Jaki Byard's sympathetic piano and Dannie Richmond's excellent drumming, as well as Jay Berliner's occasional, but spectacular, flamenco guitar playing.

This blogger first heard the album in the early 1990s on the first CD release by MCA, but a new release on an Impulse! two-fer with Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (another trememdous record) has greatly improved sound--a bonus with music as compelling as this.

Mingus, a native of Nogales, Arizona, who grew up in Los Angeles, was clearly affected the by the big band music of his youth, especially that of Duke Ellington.  Like so many young jazz musicians, however, his world was turned upside down by the titanic developments of be-bop, especially the legendary combo of alto sax player Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.  Bop was a small group form, but Mingus found a way throughout his career to skillfully take the big band sound and arrangement and meld it with the small combo component. 

Mingus also had a masterful composition and arranging style that was heavily influenced by Ellington and Parker, but was his own, weaving the variety of instruments at hand in fascinating and varied ways.  He could play it slow and sweet, sounding very "traditional", but also turn it up and move it quickly, bringing a power and intensity unrivaled at the time.

The peak was almost certainly Black Saint where uptempo, intense passages are leavened by slower, more melodic interludes, the latter often featuring Byard's beautiful touch, while the former highlighted the telepathic interplay between Mingus and Richmond.  Coloring from the baritone sax and tuba especially are noteworthy.  In the passages featuring Berliner, the flamenco touches are thrilling, as is the consistently excellent playing of alto sax player Charlie Mariano, an underappreciated player who also shone on the Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus album.

In many ways, Black Saint is the ultimate ensemble record, in which for all the great soloing, the cumulative effect of the diverse array of instrumentation, working with a richly layered score by a master, make this record a highlight for anyone interested in the best jazz has to offer.

Charles Mingus may have been volatile, argumentative, difficult, unpredictable, mentally unstable at times, but he was also highly respected by his peers for his excellent bass playing and his unsurpassed compositional and arranging skills.  When he was at his best, as with The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, he was as good as anyone in the jazz world. 

Sadly, within a few years of this momentous achievement, Mingus was hardly working, evicted from his New York apartment and struggled to keep his career going, though he had moments of excellence in the face of difficulty before his death of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1979. 

And, years after his death, the work that he considered his masterpiece, but which had a failed attempt at mounting in a live recording not long before Black Saint, was lovingly resurrected and completed by a team of musicians and composers.  This was the great Epitaph, which will be covered here in the future.

Charles Mingus:  The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! 1963)

1.  Track A—Solo Dancer  6:37
2.  Track B—Duet Solo Dancers 6:43
3.  Track C—Group Dancers  7:20
4.  Mode D—Trio and Group Dancers
     Mode E—Single Solos and Group Dance
     Mode F—Group and Solo Dance  18:39 

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