Saturday, June 06, 2009

mingus live in '64

i'm not sure why i missed out on the dvd charles mingus live in '64 when it was new, back in 2007. could be i was preoccupied with stuff like myself turning 50, the closing of the wreck room, my pop getting sick, our cat pablo passing. but as i've frequently written, the band with eric dolphy that mingus took to europe in april 1964 is one of my favorite bands of all time, and mingus' "meditations" just might be my favorite work of his, encompassing as it does more shifting moods than any other piece i can think of (with the possible exception of his album-length the black saint and the sinner lady from the previous year). i finally broke down and bought the disc when i realized it was the source of all the youtube vids of the '64 bands i'd been running across.

seeing this band on video is as big a kick for me as was seeing hendrix's monterey performance for the first time. not only are mingus and dolphy heroic, so are longtime mingus drummer danny richmond and pianist jaki byard (whom johnny case correctly states "could play the whole history of jazz"). trumpeter johnny coles (who fell ill during the performance at paris' salle wagram on april 17th) is an elfin presence on camera, while tenor sax man clifford jordan is more stolid. it's a kick watching these musos' nonverbal behavior as they meld their sounds to play mingus' incredible music. (in particular, watch the other horn players as they improvise accomaniments behind each soloist). while i've come to think of mingus primarily as a composer, it's revealing to watch his virtuosity as a bassist; during one solo, he plays two opposing lines simultaneously by fretting with his thumbs while picking with his index fingers, a trick he pulls off so deftly that you're likely to miss it if you're not looking for it.

over two hours of playing time, you get footage from three different performances: what looks like a radio broadcast in belgium on april 19th (the day after the performance at paris' theater de champs elysees released as the great concert of charles mingus); a college concert from april 12th that was broadcast over norwegian tv; and a performance from the following night that was taped for swedish tv with the band framed against the background of an empty concert hall.

the belgian performance, without coles, consists of the first of four versions of "so long eric," a blues that mingus dedicated to dolphy, who'd announced his intention to stay on in europe before the tour started. this is an abbreviated version, only five minutes long, with each musician soloing for a single chorus. it's followed by "peggy's blue skylight," a 1959 tune i first heard performed by this band on a bootleg of the april 17th show (which mingus' widow sue re-released in '97 under the title revenge!). the highlight of this set is an epic 23-minute version of "meditations," which includes mingus rubbing and scraping his bass strings and using found objects to play the strings inside the piano during the quiet closing passages.

the oslo concert opens with a 22-minute version of "so long eric," with dynamic interplay between mingus and richmond, as well as earth-shaking solos from byard and dolphy. "orange was the color of her dress, then blue silk" features coles playing the head which jack walrath recorded on 1976's changes two and byard wound up playing on '64 dates after the trumpeter's illness. during coles' solo, the shot is framed so you can see richmond and dolphy's expressions as they respond (playing and listening, respectively) to his improvisation. an attempt at the charlie parker tribute "parkeriania" clearly isn't happening, so mingus quickly calls it down and cues byard to kick off ellington's "take the 'a' train." byard plays a storming stride solo, then dolphy takes off for a fiery (and largely unaccompanied) demonstration of his imposing technique and creativity.

the swedish tv show is really a public rehearsal, with mingus stopping "so long eric" to berate the band (and richmond serving as his "amen, brother" chorus) before leading them through another short (five-and-a-half minute) version of the tune. another attempt at "meditations" is aborted when mingus stops to tune and talk to dolphy, asking the reedman how long he plans to stay in europe. (mingus: "what's 'not long,' eric?" dolphy: "a year, not more than a year." sadly, he'd be dead from complications of undiagnosed diabetes in less than 10 weeks from when the conversation was taped.) while still substantial, the version of "meditations" that follows feels a little less weighty than the one from the belgian studio. at its conclusion, mingus plays the intro to "so long eric" again and the band launches into a loose jam on the tune that lasts for seven minutes before richmond gets up from behind his drums at the end of a solo.

now i wanna hear the recording of this band from cornell university, march 18th (two weeks before the april 4th naacp benefit at nyc's town hall that i'd thought was the first recording with this lineup), that blue note released around the same time this dvd came out.


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