Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s

The emergence of any unheard music from the great bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus is a noteworthy occasion, but The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s, which offers Mingus’ sextet at the titular nightclub in London as part of an two-week engagement on August 14–15, 1972, is cause for jubilant celebration. It’s the latest historical unveiling from Zev Feldman and Resonance Records, presented as a 3LP set just in time for this weekend’s Record Store Day shindig (one day after Mingus’ 100th birthday) and with the 3CD following on April 29. Captured by mobile recording truck, the fidelity is wholly satisfying. The collective artistry, with Mingus the catalyst, soars even higher.

Yes, just last year Run Out Groove and Atlantic Records, in connection with the Jazz Workshop Inc. (the entity that controls the music of Charles Mingus, having extended from the label he founded in 1957, and with supervision by his widow Sue Mingus) issued a 3LP expansion of Mingus at Carnegie Hall, a reissue so stellar it landed on this website’s Best of 2021 list.

Now, non-aficionados of jazz might consider this set’s arrival, hot on the heels of Carnegie Hall, to be tantamount to overkill. But I’m afraid it’s just not that way. For starters, the band on this record is markedly different from the one heard on Carnegie Hall. Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, trumpeter Jon Faddis, and of course Mingus are the musicians the releases have in common. The players unique to Ronnie Scott’s are Bobby Jones on tenor sax and clarinet, John Foster on piano, and Roy Brooks on drums and musical saw.

That’s right, the musical saw, which Brooks plays quite well during “Noddin’ Your Head Blues.” It’s just one of this recording’s unique aspects. Brooks also utilizes his invention the “breath-a-tone,” described in the notes as essentially a pitch-control apparatus for his drums, though its use is rather subtle in the overall scheme of the album. And by subtle, I mean I’m not sure exactly when Brooks’ device is in operation. Honestly, the music’s so good I hardly think about it.

Not so subtle are the vocals of Foster on two selections. First is “Noddin’ Your Head Blues,” with his singing basically a pleasant but far from mind-blowing hat-tip to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Later, there’s “Pops (aka When The Saints Go Marching In),” a straight-up Louis Armstrong impression that’s maybe the most unexpected turn taken on The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s (it also throws a spotlight on Jones’ clarinet).

Although this recording was made with the intention of a commercial release in the 1970s (with Mingus referencing this fact on the microphone and thanking the audience for their applause), the atmosphere is still pretty relaxed and representative of two nights on the bandstand by this group in the midst of a two-week stint.

Relaxed doesn’t mean uninspired, however. The reason this music went unheard until now was due to Mingus getting dropped by Columbia in what was obviously an early ’70s jazz purge by the label. And so, the tapes stayed on the shelf, Mingus got signed by Atlantic and in 1974 he played Carnegie Hall, a performance that was released, famously but only partially.

Mingus’ bass playing is typically splendid as is his direction of this unit’s progress throughout these sets, encouraging individual flights of expression while always keeping a handle on his own creative voice. And young Faddis (at one point, Mingus jokingly says he’s 11 years old) is in exceptional form as he helps to solidify the bebop in the equation (no surprise, as Faddis was a Dizzy Gillespie protégé), particularly in “The Man Who Never Sleeps.”

If Carnegie Hall documents a Major Event and Ronnie Scott’s provides an extended glimpse of two evenings in the lifespan of a working band, there are obvious points of unification, and none bigger than “Fables of Faubus,” the one composition the recordings have in common, presented here in a 35-minute version that’s significantly different from its numerous other recordings; in this performance, they really lean into the melody and let it fly.

Adding one more entry to the list of Resonance Records’ miraculous archival discoveries, The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s is an unexpected gift, achieving the seemingly impossible by revealing yet another layer of dimension in the life’s work of Charles Mingus.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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