Saturday, July 16, 2016

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964

This 2007 release on Blue Note Records is another one of those happy musical discoveries--coming about when Sue Graham Mingus, the widow of the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus found a tape of a concert held at Cornell University in upstate New York on 18 March 1964.

The two sets make up the double disc offering here and the programming is, characteristically for Mingus diverse and different.  The first tune is a solo romp by pianist Jaki Byard, who creates a piece brimming with upbeat feeling based on stunning virtuosity.  Byard then comps quietly behind Mingus, who solos to great effectiveness on a piece by one of his heroes, Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."

Then comes one of the centerpieces of this record and one of the most politically charged pieces in the leader's impressive catalog of original compositions: "Fables of Faubus."  This jibe at the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who fought the federally ordered desegregation of schools in 1957.  While the vocals decrying Faubus are important to hear, and certainly had a place in 1964, the piece is also a gem because of the way the remarkable sextet moved through the tune with its shifting tempos, excellent soloing, and remarkable harmonic interplay.  Byars, as just one example, takes a bit of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and builds upon it in his great solo and Mingus quotes "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" in his solo.  But, this is a triumph of a band making the most of its ample and impressive resources and led by a composer at the peak of his powers.

"Orange was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk" is a beautiful ballad, in which we hear the phenomenal Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, employing all of the explosive, technically imposing, and utterly unique elements of his playing, with Mingus clearly encouraging Dolphy on.

The great composer Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," another piece associated with Ellington, also gets a great workout and Byard's soloing takes in stride playing and other "older" styles in weaving a fascinating history-based performance.  Mingus's phenomenal bass solo, in conjunction with Danny Richmond's remarkable drumming, features the bassist talking, grunting, and otherwise having a hell of a time while the crowd laughs and roars in appreciation.  Dolphy offers another great solo while the band rumbles and roars behind him and the pieces closes to end a spectacular set.

The second set is anchored by another marathon piece, the mind-blowing "Meditations," which runs over 31 minutes.  While it does have its meditative moments, it also has its uptempo sections, where the band, firing on all cylinders, displays all of its stregnths and shows no discernible weaknesses, letdowns, or misfirings.  Hearing Clifford Jordan solo on tenor, while Dolphy backs him on bass clarinet, and the rhythm section churns and burns along with them, is really interesting and exciting, especially as the finish pits the horns against Byard's hard block chords and Richmond's stirring drumming and as Mingus can be heard directing the band where to go next.

"So Long Eric" has been taken by many to be a posthumously-titled homage to Dolphy, who died just three months later in Berlin, but it was actually given that title by Mingus as Dolphy left the band to take the tour to Europe that included his untimely passing.

It being the day after St. Patrick's Day, Mingus tossed in a version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and introduced trumpeter "Johnny O'Coles" as the "only Irishman in the band."  The album closes with the Fats Waller gem "Jitterbug Waltz", a fantastic rendering that highlights Dolphy's flute playing and provides more of the leader's great bass work.

It wasn't long after this recording that Mingus' career took a downturn, along with his mental and physical health.   There were later highlights like Let My Children Hear Music from the early 70s and the Changes albums from the same period, but the unit he had the year that the Cornell concert was made was exceptional and perhaps the high point of his long and remarkable career.

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