“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.” ~ Charles Mingus, 1977, Mainliner Magazine
Charles Mingus is a leader, not a follower. The American jazz bassist, pianist, and composer, born on April 22nd, is one of the most renowned jazz legends of our time. A 3 decade long masterful career, being able to work with other legends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and many more, Mingus was like no other. Arguably the pioneer of avant-garde jazz, with the long overdone description of jazz being calming, this is truly on the contrary. Taking a bit of a step back, I have to give a little bit of context to the man's lengthy early life. Born in Nogales, Arizona, Charles came to love music at a young age despite the fact his mother only allowed church-related music in their home. Learning to love jazz in specific, especially Duke Ellington, he wanted to become part of that music making process. He studied multiple different instruments like the trombone and the cello but despite his persistent efforts, he simply couldn’t make it in the industry. For a black musician to succeed at this point and time, there were very little chances. What also brought him down was due to poor education, the then young Charles was simply not able to read music in a hasty fashion to compete with his contemporaries, let alone lead an orchestra. He felt out of place in this space, felt restricted by everyone and felt he wasn’t ever given a proper chance, having to deal with racism, discrimination and injustice in his early life.
This didn’t stop him from attempting to write music, as in his teen years he began to write advanced pieces of art very well. He was able to pick up a lot of steam with this, and especially his skill of being a bassist. Although he didn’t receive proper education like most people of his and our time, he has shown time and time again to have the raw talent and learning ability to make music. This was his destiny, and knew that, and pursued it. Gaining more and more fame around the area as a bass prodigy, he was able to pick up gigs with other legends in the field like former Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard and later even being able to tour with Louis Armstrong. These were just some of his accomplishments other than his own masterfully created music. Later in his life he created a record studio, “Debut Records”, leading orchestras, composing his own music, playing live, and even teaching his talents and expertise to others. Charles Mingus had a long notable life, and won’t be forgotten for what he’s done for the jazz landscape.
This project in particular, “The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady”, is an album that I’ve found myself revisiting the most from Charles’ discography. A clear highlight, in not only the music but the history behind it as well. If you are interested in the history of the album, please seek out DoubleZ’s review on it as I feel it encapsulates everything and was written very well. To sum it up very quickly, this record was curated via one session with Mingus’ team. From the track names alone, you can figure out what the project’s goal is. Cutting it into 4 tracks and 6 movements, it’s names “Solo Dancer”, “Duete Solo Dancers” and so on, show that this album is sorted into a form of ballet. The album was set to being ambitious and experimental, said by Charles himself to be reminiscent of “ethnic folk-dance music”. This 16 man project was set to be a prolonged illustrious project with an interpretive meaning to it. Now being one of the most acclaimed records of all time, it completely fulfilled the success it deserves. It has me thinking a lot about an album that was recorded in one session, prone to having mistakes but ultimately ending up not having much of any at all. It never ceases to amaze me, and it’s time to figure out why and how it was able to get this way.
The project is kicked off steadily with crescendoing drums on “Track A - Solo Dancer”. Saxophones and baritones come in as well. A piano faded into the background later found in the track. The intro to track 1 is quite ominous, mysterious into where it's going to go. It later finds its footing in around a minute through the track. Tumultuous it is, as we proceed forward, everything that was once calming yet unknown, it is now blaring and getting more chaotic. By the 3rd minute mark, it catches up with itself and takes a rest. What´s present with a lot of Mingus´ music and especially on this record, is the use of rests, providing time to sink in a chaotic experience with something more or less mellow, but coming back into the track strong as ever as if nothing happened. The overall bassline of track 1 stays the same for the track, but finds new melodies each second, rarely repeating itself, providing something unique every few seconds. A clear direction isn't needed when you're providing an experience. “Track B - Duete Solo Dancers'' takes everything from the background off track 1, and brings it to the spotlight and tones down the melody pieces of the sax and baritones and puts it off to the side for a moment, letting the piano shine. This is the intro, as it slowly switches up right from under your nose, as by the end of the track, you´re left with it being reversed. So far to the 2 minute mark, it´s overall been calm, but by 2:40, the tempo is increasing, the volume is crescendoing. It suddenly slows down but goes back onto that climb again, except more chaotic than last time. This proceeds to go on for seemingly 5 minutes but really being half a minute, it then goes quiet, with only the sound of a baritone in the side of your ear. Then nothing. And it goes back into the original track. I heavily enjoyed this as you feel this long buildup will lead into an explosion but it subverts your original expectations and provides the opposite of your thought.
Now entering the 2nd half of the project with “Track C - Group Dancers”, we start off with a piano solo. This gives me a memory that I really haven't had before, a memory of a ballet. This could be an unpopular opinion, but thus far even though the theme has revolved around a ballet, this is the first instance where I felt the environment. Beforehand, it could've passed as a ballet, yet chaotic, but this is the first time where I feel like this is what it's supposed to be. Making me think that the idea of the project is that maybe not everything is what it seems, and this, what I'm hearing isn't the “real thing”. That's just my opinion anyway, not nearly an analysis of what the music actually represents, so take that with a grain of salt. What stands out the most in this track like no other, is the falsetto instrument in the background. Although it's not louder than really anything on the track, it intrigued me a lot. Those little pieces of detail matter a lot and show the attention to detail that Charles and his crew went through to create this recording. This track is in my opinion, the best example of the slow burn off the album. Not nearly as many resting points as usual after a chaotic experience, but starts calm but ends in insanity. The power only increases throughout this track, and never really seems to slow down unless it is trying to provide a bit of mystery. The final medley of the project is 20 minutes and contains the final few movements, and is nothing short of quality. Although being a long one, it really piques your interest very often, making it feel shorter than it actually is. Some sections of the track take a bit of a stylistic turn like the use of the guitar, sounding rustic, feeling like a more complete genre than jazz. Other sections take its tried and true formula used throughout the project and still excels. And even providing more piano solos which has only been used 1-2 times. These all meld together surprisingly well into just one medley, this coda feels like it's taking everything great from the first 3 sections, putting it together and adding even more extra touches to perfection. The 4th track, in my opinion, is the peak of jazz, and sure, you can say I am wrong but it is just my opinion after all. It´s curated in a way where it takes everything great about jazz, itś calming qualities, it's detailed instrumentals, it´s ability to tell a story via immersion, and given the twist of chaos from Mingus to provide a 20 minute experience of pure euphoria. Not one point in this record I feel dissatisfied, every single build up pays off well and as satisfying as it can get. This is the peak of jazz, and I have no idea what other project can come close to beating this.
As much as I say it, it really applies to the record. This album is not just a bunch of songs, or something you just tune into, it's a mindblowing adventure of euphoria and chaos simultaneously. Most albums I cover makes you envision a different world, this makes you envision a simpler time in our own world rather. It’s down to earth, its humanizing feel doesn’t feel out of this world or anything that’s out of the ordinary, it’s more of a time capsule of the past that listening to the album feels like a recovery of an old artifact. Opening the box, it screams to you the times of the 1960’s, black and white pictures fill your brain, it feels like the world of our own but simply different. It’s a song and dance comparable to our world, but with it’s own flaws and chaos too like anything else. This is clearly an album of a perfectionist, as everything is truly perfect, it’s immersion is as perfect as it gets. It’s ambitious to create a different reality of our own, and Mingus was not lucky to make it, he was just the only one to do it right. I’ve been able to listen to this piece for months on end, being able to really figure it out. It sounds like a nostalgic memory, I feel like this album is able to tackle our own. It’s able to show our own memories as well, even if the “sound” of our memories isn’t jazz, this majestic feeling makes you long for the past. This call to the past was done via the project being recommended to me by a friend, that I truly miss as of now. A friend that a lot of you may know. Everytime I listen to this record, his presence comes to my mind, and that’s truly spellbinding to me. There’s nothing more in this world that I love than being able to recall the great past with that being of this world or my own, and that’s what this presents to me. It took me months to fully build up the courage to write on this album and his character, as there is so much to say. No matter what I say in this review will ever fully say all my thoughts on the man, and be able to perfectly describe his career. It’s impossible, as there is just too much to it. Charles Mingus, the perfectionist, the teacher, the leader, the legend, you will not be forgotten for your magnum opus and notable career…
Hey! Here´s a bonus review of one of my favorite tracks from Charles Mingus, “Moanin”. Hope you enjoy it, and thank you for reading my review. :)
The genre of this piece is avant-garde jazz: easily determined by its instrumentation using saxophones, baritones, piano, and drums and it’s overall chaotic, varying dynamic styles, a.k.a it switching in between legato and staccato. It’s an upbeat, tumultuous piece that can be seen as messy or confusing upon first listen but will ultimately make more sense as you piece the puzzle together with more listens, and find appreciation in the multi-layered jazz perfection that it is. It’s jam packed with countering melodies and harmonies, fighting for the spotlight constantly and in the grand scheme of things it comes out as melding into one united, prolonged piece of love. The cymbals throughout the song serve as a baseline, constantly ringing, but not being obnoxious, throughout the piece. With the piano faded in the background, sometimes coming out to shine in the less chaotic, “rests” of the piece, serves as a melody. But these two instruments are rather insignificant as they serve as a “sheet over the table” for the blaring saxophones and baritones that really overshadow the rest. This continues throughout the whole song, especially the ending. But even with that, it shows even how quiet some parts of the instrumentation can be, those parts are still integral to the piece. It’s been masterminded in a way where every small detail counts, even when it seems like there’s a lot going on. Once again, this piece has so many layers to it and it’s a lot to take in, but it’s immense detail and disarrayment style is what makes it so perfect for me. I think the performers on this piece did phenomenally, dare I say ahead of it’s time due to it being from 1963, which hearing a lot of the other music around that time, it can’t compete with this. With that, this single is still even after all these years, a major competitor for the best jazz pieces of all time. They did so well due to their raw talent with their instruments, completely succeeding with their parts and nothing really to complain about. There’s not a clear flaw with anything with this piece. At all times there’s this slickness throughout the piece, absolutely no slip ups. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but it’s really reaching it as all of these instruments coming together are melding into this perfect loving piece of music that strikes your core.