Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
Mingus At Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition

Bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus is an eternal jazz heavyweight, but with the release of Mingus At Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition, his stature, and more specifically his late-career potency, has been given a boost, as the set expands the severely truncated initial single LP drawn from the January 19, 1974 concert, now offering the complete performance on two compact discs via Rhino Records, released on June 11 to coincide with Black Music Month, and on triple vinyl through Run Out Groove, available July 16. Soaking up the entirety of the evening is to luxuriate in the footprint of this giant of 20th century music as realized by his stellar sextet and guests, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Although on the original album cover as replicated by this edition, Mingus’ group is listed as pianist Don Pullen, tenor saxophonist George Adams, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and drummer Dannie Richmond, this seems to repeat an error of omission in concert promoter Art Weiner’s opening remarks, as he momentarily forgets to mention trumpeter Jon Faddis and begins his introduction by describing the evening as divided into two parts, the first featuring Mingus’ quintet and the second expanding the quintet with guests for a jam session (Faddis is part of the band for the whole performance, however).

Atlantic extends Weiner’s error on the cover by crediting Faddis as a guest alongside saxophonists John Handy, Charles McPherson, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who also plays the stritch. While opening this review by emphasizing Weiner’s mistake might not be a particularly auspicious beginning, rest assured that Mingus At Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition is an utter gem, with the exquisite mayhem of the original LP sweetly intensified by the context of the evening’s progressions.

It’s also worthwhile to highlight Faddis as part of the sextet, as this particular Mingus group is a vibrant representation of jazz music’s stylistic breadth. Bluiett, Adams, and Pullen are all affiliated with the avant-garde, but to varying degrees, with Pullen having recorded in duo with Milford Graves and on Giuseppi Logan’s two ESP-Disk albums in the ’60s, and Bluiett co-founding the Black Artists Group in St. Louis (roughly comparable to Chicago’s AACM) in the late ’60s, and later in the ’70s, the World Saxophone Quartet.

Although Adams played on a pair of albums by Roy Haynes prior, his participation in Mingus’ band was essentially his emergence onto the scene, a connection that would evolve into the ’80s with the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, which featured bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Dannie Richmond and exemplified what is often referred to as an inside-outside compositional-improvisational approach.

Faddis on the other hand, as a disciple of Dizzy Gillespie who could hit the high notes with authority, was an unabashedly inside guy (young at 20 years old for this recording) and with extensive future credits (pop albums as well as mainstream jazz) to match. And if Faddis doesn’t receive the same level of appreciation as earlier Mingus trumpeters Ted Curson, Richard Williams, Clark Terry, and even Johnny Coles (from the Cornell ’64 live recording of the sextet with Eric Dolphy), he is integral to this band’s stylistic recipe, with Mingus as the backbone that’s strengthened by the presence of Richmond.

The initial recordings of the three Mingus originals on this set; “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” first cut in 1961 during the sessions for the Oh Yeah album (issued on the ’64 LP Tonight at Noon); “Celia,” from the ’57 LP East Coasting; and “Fables of Faubus,” from ’59s Mingus Ah Um (also recorded live the following year, with vocals as first intended, as “Original Faubus Fables” on Presents Charles Mingus), all featured Richmond as drummer.

Unsurprisingly, of the introductions, Richmond gets the biggest applause other than the bandleader himself, underscoring that at least a portion of the audience had more than a passing acquaintance with Mingus’ work. And the fans get rewarded with inspired readings of two tunes that while not obscure, were also not (unlike “Fables of Faubus”) amongst Mingus’ best-known works at the time (and today).

And prior to the jam session, the band dishes “Big Alice,” a Pullen tune the Mingus band cut in studio during the ’73 sessions for Mingus Moves that remained on the shelf until ’93 as a CD bonus cut. And so, it’s not all that shocking that Atlantic elected to release the rousing all-star dives into “C Jam Blues” (an Ellington standard) and “Perdido” (also associated with Duke but written by Juan Tizol). What is hard to figure is why they put “C Jam Blues,” which closed the evening and was an impossible act to follow (Kirk is absolutely aflame), on the first side.

A head scratcher, that one. And it can seem insulting that in playing it safe, Atlantic overlooked such a spirited and distinct version of “Fables of Faubus” (taken at a faster tempo, just for starters). But the original LP did reinforce the crucial if sometimes uneasy link between Duke and Mingus (see also, Money Jungle), and was an utter blast to listen to (especially playing side two first), it’s just that now it serves as a proper culmination to an evening of Great Black Music.

I’ll add that Pullen’s “Big Alice” splendidly undercuts perceptions, delivered at a jaunty pace and thoroughly accessible. In the decade previous and shortened to roughly four minutes (from this version’s nearly 19), the tune would’ve made a fantastic jukebox single a la Lee Morgan and Ramsey Lewis as it reminds me a bit of another Mingus alum, Jaki Byard.

But it’s a gift to hear all the members of the sextet expressing themselves (inside, outside, in-between) so comfortably in the fulfillment of Mingus’ brilliance, and with no sense of friction. A hallmark of Mingus’ music is how he maintained bands not just with solid players but also with distinct personalities, which added dimension and created a discourse that has only grown with the passage of time.

Since Mingus’ death in 1979, it’s been stated with frequency that, while admirable and consistently fulfilling, the man’s late recordings simply aren’t as strong as his albums from the late ’50 and into decade that followed. The belated release of the full Carnegie Hall concert ultimately renders a time-based hierarchical assessment moot, as these six vinyl sides (or two compact discs) drive home that there was no other Mingus band quite like this one.

Then Handy, Kirk, and McPherson joined the party, and everyone went home drunk on the knowledge that they’d either participated in or witnessed greatness. As they say: Oh, to have been there. Ah, but Mingus At Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition is more than the next best thing. It’s more than we’d ever thought we’d get.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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