Charles Mingus might be the ultimate example of someone who’s “jazz famous.” Within jazz circles, he’s revered, but he should be as well-known as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, or John Coltrane. His name should be as familiar as theirs to people who know almost nothing about jazz, but it’s not, for a variety of reasons. He had a volcanic temper that was at one time or another turned on almost everyone in his personal and professional life — bandmates, record labels, managers, wives (he had four), even audiences. He famously destroyed a bass onstage at the Five Spot in response to heckling from the crowd, and punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth during a rehearsal, knocking out one of his teeth and ruining his embouchure.
He went through periods of emotional upheaval where he’d hardly work at all; after Eric Dolphy’s death in 1964, Mingus virtually disappeared for five years. His recordings were scattered among too many labels, and he re-worked and re-recorded his tunes too many times, for listeners to stay caught up. Davis was signed to Prestige, then to Columbia, and finally to Warner Bros.; Coltrane was signed to Prestige, then to Atlantic, then to Impulse!, allowing fans to track their artistic evolution with relative ease. Mingus would release an album on Columbia and one on Atlantic within months of each other, then start his own label and issue still more material, or sell live recordings to anyone who wanted to put them out.
That said, there are some key eras of his work that can be explored. His recordings from the late 1950s — Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty on Columbia and Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, and Blues & Roots, all on Atlantic — are landmarks not just in his catalog, but in jazz as a whole. His early ’60s Impulse! albums The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus are two of his greatest works, the former an artfully orchestrated studio masterpiece and the latter a raucous, wall-pounding collection of rave-ups recorded with an 11-piece band. After recording the latter, Mingus went on a European tour with an incredible band featuring Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond; many live recordings exist, but again, following Dolphy’s death, there was almost no new music until 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music. Produced with Teo Macero and released on Columbia, it featured a large orchestra playing some brilliant new compositions including “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers,” “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too,” and “The Chill Of Death,” which included a recitation of the title poem. It’s an amazing record that should be much better known.
In 1973, Mingus re-signed with Atlantic and was reborn, artistically and professionally. In the space of five years, he recorded seven albums’ worth of material, almost all of it new and much of it equal to his best previous work. And it’s all just been compiled into a deluxe box, Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings, which comes as seven CDs or eight LPs, all remastered and sounding fantastic.
Mingus Moves was his first album after re-signing with Atlantic. Recorded October 29-31, 1973 and released in early 1974, it featured a new band: Ronald Hampton on trumpet, George Adams on tenor sax, Don Pullen on piano, and Dannie Richmond — who had played with Mingus more or less continually since 1956 — on drums. The new players were extraordinarily vital, particularly Adams and Pullen. The saxophonist had a rough, gritty sound and could shift almost instantly from speedy bebop lines to raucous cries that fell somewhere between Albert Ayler and later free players like Charles Gayle and David S. Ware. The opening track, “Canon,” is one of the most beautiful pieces any Mingus group ever recorded, a deeply spiritual melody that the two horns lay over each other almost like they’re singing a round, as Richmond plays tiny bells and occasionally thumps the drums. When Mingus and Pullen enter together, they give it an even more elegiac feel. Then, right at the halfway mark, it shifts gears into a gospel groove that’ll make you want to get up and wave your arms in the air. It’s an incredible piece of music that almost seems to stop time while it’s playing.
This box limits its scope to studio recordings, so you don’t get Mingus At Carnegie Hall, which is a shame. It was recorded in concert on January 19, 1974 with Jon Faddis on trumpet, Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax, and Adams, Pullen and Richmond, plus three special guests: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, tenor saxophonists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Handy, all guesting on two long jams — versions of the Duke Ellington tunes “Perdido” and “C Jam Blues” — at the end of the show. Those two pieces, roughly 25 minutes each, were all that was included on the original LP, and if an endless parade of solos is your idea of fun, it has plenty of peaks and very few valleys. But Rhino reissued the album in 2021, giving listeners the entire concert and expanding it to a two-CD set in the process, and that gives a much more interesting portrait of Mingus’s early ’70s music. The compositions — “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Fables Of Faubus,” “Celia” and “Big Alice” — are a mix of old and new, but all presented with equal fervor; nothing he and his band played was ever rote or lazy. This expanded live album is now an essential piece of his catalog.
Changes One and Two were recorded over three days of sessions at the very end of 1974 — December 27, 28 and 30 — with Jack Walrath on trumpet, George Adams on tenor sax, Don Pullen on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums. Each album includes a version of a piece called “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”; on Changes One, it’s a 12-minute instrumental, while on Changes Two, it’s a four-minute showcase for singer Jackie Paris and guest trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Fans of mid ’60s Mingus albums like The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady or Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus may find the Changes LPs a little too smooth and romantic for their liking; this quintet is very much in an almost retro hard bop mode. Despite their politically engaged titles, which make reference to the then-governor of New York State and a deadly prison uprising, “Remember Rockefeller At Attica” and “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi U.S.A.” are bouncing, swinging themes that could have come off a Clifford Brown/Max Roach album from 1956. The 17-minute “Sue’s Changes,” from Changes One, is equally glossy. There are moments when the horns go off into ecstatic flights clearly inspired by free jazz, though, and Don Pullen is a highly percussive pianist as comfortable with avant-garde ribbons of notes as with bebop and blues. “Devil Blues” features Adams howling lyrics by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown; the words are creative, but the saxophonist should have kept the horn in his mouth, as he sounds like a lunatic shouting to himself on the subway. Still, the mix of raw and smooth, of old tunes (a reworking of “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” which dated back to at least 1964) and new, makes them some of Mingus’s most fascinating work.
Cumbia & Jazz Fusion and Three Or Four Shades Of Blues were the last two albums Mingus played on. Most of the material for both was recorded in March 1977 in New York, though one track, “Music For ‘Todo Modo,” was recorded a year earlier in Italy, intended for the soundtrack to a movie, though legendary composer Ennio Morricone composed the score that was actually used in the final film. It was placed on the B-side of Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, paired with the album’s title track, a 28-minute piece that attempts to combine South American cumbia with big band jazz via a 14-member ensemble that included about a half dozen percussionists, as well as jungle sound effects courtesy of producer Ilhan Mimaroglu. Three Or Four Shades Of Blues filled its first side with reworkings of old Mingus compositions: “Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Noddin Ya Head Blues.” The second side presented two new pieces, the title track and “Nobody Knows,” and added numerous guests, including guitarists Larry Coryell and John Scofield and alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune. George Mraz and Ron Carter also played bass on the record, because ALS, the disease that would take Mingus’s life on January 5, 1979, had already begun to progress.
Although he could no longer play the bass, Mingus composed material for two more of his own albums as well as a collaboration with Joni Mitchell, which she named in tribute to him. The sessions for Me, Myself An Eye and Something Like A Bird, held in January 1978, were arranged by trumpeter Jack Walrath and the large ensembles were conducted by saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, both longtime Mingus collaborators; the ideas were his, though he was forced to use a wheelchair by that point and could not physically lead the musicians himself. The albums featured some of his longest and most ambitious studio pieces — “Three Worlds Of Drums,” which opens Me, Myself An Eye, features Dannie Richmond, Steve Gadd, and Joe Chambers, each one taking the music in a slightly different direction. Similarly, Something Like A Bird opens with its title track, spread across both sides of the vinyl and running nearly 32 minutes. The album ends with “Farewell Farwell,” a tribute to a friend Mingus wrote about extensively in his wild autobiography, Beneath The Underdog.
Charles Mingus didn’t make it easy on listeners. His music was frequently brilliant, but not always presented in the ideal context, and it could be difficult, given the flood of material, to know where to start. The Changes box gathers work that deserves a wider audience — hell, I’ve been listening to his music for decades and I’d never heard these final two albums before — and gives it the presentation it deserves, including brilliant sound. If you’re new to Mingus, there’s no reason not to start here. Then move backward to the earlier Atlantic albums, as well as his Columbia and Impulse! releases, of course. But if you’re just hearing “Canon” for the first time, I envy you.