Revinylization #8: Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

I consider Charles Mingus one of the great American composers, at least on par with the most celebrated American classical dudes. With apologies to fans of that music, I'd much rather listen to this record, or any of several other Mingus recordings, than, say, Billy the Kid or Rhapsody in Blue. What makes Mingus great is precisely that, in contrast to Copland and Gershwin, when he explored the vernacular, it wasn't some pale imitation.

Some jazz records can seem generic, their solos interchangeable. Mingus's music is rarely generic. Like Thelonious Monk's, his music is instantly recognizable. And there is real passion in Mingus—joy and anger and devotion and love—all right there on the music's sleeve.

Mingus may be unique among composers in his ability to harness passion and wildness in service of structured, comprehensible music without taming the wildness. His music also, somehow, looks forward and backward at the same time—forward toward the avantgarde and backward to African-American church music, Dixieland jazz, and who knows what else—in precisely the same notes.

Mingus Ah Um, from 1959, includes some of Mingus's best and best-known music: "Better Git It in Your Soul," which echoes an old-time prayer meeting (the same tune was recorded with a different title—"Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting"—on Blues and Roots, on Atlantic Records this same year); "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," his elegy for Lester Young, who died two months before the recording sessions that produced this LP; "Fables of Faubus," which is instrumental here—in the sense of "no lyrics"—because Columbia forbade Mingus from reciting the incendiary words aimed at the Arkansas governor standing in the way of integrating Little Rock, Arkansas, schools. (Mingus would record the song again the following year on Candid complete with astute political commentary: "He's a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremist!"). Self-Portrait in Three Colors is superb jazz, an underrated classic that suggests Mingus's gift for holding apparent contradictions in balance.

The only shortcoming of this album is that it doesn't have Eric Dolphy on it. Dolphy was always at his best when reined in by Mingus, but Dolphy wouldn't record with Mingus for the first time until 1961, on Pre-Bird.

This reissue is part of Mobile Fidelity's premium "Ultradisc One-Step" series, which is based on a technical innovation in which the recording goes from lacquer to vinyl via just one intermediate step—called a convert—instead of the usual three (father, mother, stamper); two quality-degrading generations are eliminated. "One-Steps" are pressed on "SuperVinyl," MoFi's proprietary vinyl formulation that's said to lower the noise floor and allow the creation of smoother grooves, indistinguishable from those of the original lacquer.

This boxed set is a work of art—actually, several works of art. The music itself is high art. The engineering is artful. The cover features an abstract painting by S. Neil Fujita, who established Columbia's design team and brought abstract art to Columbia record covers. (He also designed the cover for Time Out, those far-out Glenn Gould covers, and the dust jacket for the book The Godfather.) There is art inside the package, too: two large, frameable photos of Mingus from the Sony Music archives, by Don Hunstein, printed on high-quality stock.

This Mingus Ah Um reissue is also art of the cubist or postmodern sort, a refraction of the original LP through a high-end–audio prism. In place of a simple 33.3 LP with an inner sleeve and cover, here we have a black box more than an inch thick holding the aforementioned photos, two 12", 45rpm records in several layers of protection (including inner sleeves thicker than most outer sleeves); a cardboard insert with the album art on one side (with "ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING" added across the top) and the original liner notes on the other side; a cardboard insert describing the One Step process; and some foam. Frankly, I'd rather listen to a whole album side before getting up to flip the record, and I wish it took up less space on my record shelf, but it's a beautiful set, and even at $125 provides good value for your money.

Mingus Ah Um has always sounded good. This version, though, sounds substantially better than the other versions. In fact, this Mingus Ah Um is one of the best-sounding classic jazz albums I own, with a big, deep soundstage, visceral images, and tons of impact. The vinyl is dead quiet. It's nearly perfect.

How much of that sonic superiority is a result of running at 45rpm? I don't know—some of it, certainly. Despite what I wrote earlier, I am ambivalent about the 33.3-vs-45rpm decision: I do prefer the 33.3 LP format, but I also enjoy the sonic gains provided by the higher speed. I would not want to give up any of this sonic goodness.

1959 was jazz's annus mirabilis, the year of this album, Kind of Blue, John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, Duke Ellington's Jazz Party, Wynton Kelly's Kelly Blue, and many others. I'll be shredded for saying it, but this may be the best of the lot.

COMMENTS
TNtransplant's picture

Great review. As much as I love those other iconic 1959 releases mentioned, 'Ah Um' is probably the single album that best captures the range of Mingus's shorter statements with a mid-sized ensemble.

Agree, it stands out above the others as a touchstone of jazz to come -- arguably more so than Ornette's -- with musical frameworks that honor and build upon past compositional masters (Jelly Roll, Ellington) while still allowing space for freer improvisation styles (referencing past trailblazers Pres and Bird). Plus, as you mention, there's the spiritual and political elements.

Interesting comment about Dolphy. Not so sure about reining in (Dolphy is pretty out there on the 1960 Antibes and the '64 live recordings) or how well he would have fit in 1959. His solos might have ended up on the cutting room floor-- an unusual action for a jazz recording at the time -- as some others did (later resurrected on 'Nostalgia in Times Square' and the Mosaic complete CBS sessions box and I think some later CD/SACD reissues). But we do get a taste of what might have been on 'Mingus, Mingus ...' (etc.) when several of these compositions are re-recorded for Impulse, right?

Yeah, Ellington and Mingus also take up the most space on my LP shelves. Look forward to you tackling a future Duke reissue.

BTW - apparently Dolphy did first record with Mingus in 1960 on 'Pre-Bird' sessions (which seems not to have been released until 1961) though the later Candid recordings with Dolphy did come out before the end of 1960.

Anton's picture

In general, a great sounding set of releases.

Anybody know what's next?

AaronGarrett's picture

Warm Canto? Hat and Beard? Solo flute on "You Don't Know What Love Is?" Dolphy was at his best in many, many contexts. I love him with Mingus but better than "Spiritual" and "India" Live at the Village Vanguard with Coltrane? Can't agree.

Jim Austin's picture

Dolphy could be undisciplined to the point where the music wasn't as much fun. But he wasn't always, solo. Sometimes as a leader he was too reined in. I just love what he did with Mingus.

Jim

AaronGarrett's picture

I think I read your statement wrong. He was always great with Mingus. You weren't denying he was also great in a lot of other contexts. I do think Mingus' greatest reed partner, and funnest, was Roland Kirk. That was the perfect match.

TNtransplant's picture

Personally I always thought Booker Ervin was also a great match and he stands out on 'Ah Um'. But like Ellington, Mingus could often bring out the best with limited instrumentalists; performances by obscure players like Clarence Shaw and Bill Triglia on 'Tijuana Moods' come to mind.

Of course expanding across all instruments the real ultimate match for Mingus was always Dannie Richmond -- the few late recordings when Dannie was missing are clearly subpar.

But going back to Jim's original comment on possible 'Ah Um' personnel shortcomings: as much as I respect Horace Parlan, how about if Jaki Byard was the pianist? Especially on "Jelly Roll" which I think Byard could have taken to another level with his command of older piano styles?

While I'm at it, agree with Jim about the superb Mofi sound quality and package. But digging out my old SACD for comparison was reminded about the enhanced booklet from that reissue which included great session photos and Brian Priestley's new liner notes. Would have been a nice inclusion if Mofi licensed those as well.

Jim Austin's picture

Love Booker Ervin, but he's only my second-favorite Booker.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

TNtransplant's picture

Wonderful tenor player who I'm guessing many audiophiles are unfamiliar with. He's great on Randy Weston's classic African Cookbook, a personal favorite of mine.

How about a review of one of his solo albums, perhaps Analogue Productions/Prestige 'The Freedom Book' reissue with the much underrated rhythm section of Jaki Byard/Richard Davis/Alan Dawson? (It's 33.3 so no need to gripe about the additional required flips. Kinda agree with you on that, but then again we could be getting up a lot more if we were listening to 78's!)

Another "wish for": as you review these albums append some other recommended titles to also check out?

AaronGarrett's picture

With the same amazing rhythm section and Roland Kirk. Byard and Kirk on "Memories of You" is as good as it gets. I completely agree that Byard, Mingus, and Kirk were all players who loved the whole history of jazz and were encyclopedic in their knowledge of jazz, but brilliantly original, playful, joyous, creative, and modern all at the same time.

TNtransplant's picture

So who's #1? Candidates: Booker T., Booker Little, or James Booker -- all greats

Bukka White could be a write-in

Jim Austin's picture

There's also a Booker Hart, a drummer. I meant Booker Little, who could almost, sometimes, out-Dolphy, Dolphy. They were great together.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereohpile

TNtransplant's picture

Just learned that the Mingus bands had started an online series. Check out the online event with several Mingus alum trumpeters including Randy Brecker and Jack Walrath:
https://www.charlesmingus.com
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mingus-institute-attycb-class-2-chop-talk-trumpets-tickets

Booker Little brings to mind a couple of other iconic albums unfortunately still all too relevant given recent events, Max Roach's 'We Insist!' and 'Percussion Bitter Sweet', the latter also featuring Dolphy. Both essential listening for anyone interested in early 60's jazz.

tonykaz's picture

It's gonna be hard to find a good use for it, ( polished marble, hmm ).

We won't now be needing to apologise for our opinions, will we? I hope not, for gods sake. ( I'm meaning that you are sort-of setting the ( our ) standard for these things, here at this outfit )

Out in the free-world, opinions are the currency of intelligent conversations, we cherish useful opinions.

I'm feeling enthused to read of and discover your enthusiasm for the Jazz era 1950s 1960s, although I've never quite enjoyed any of it personally. I had access to Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit but was only an occasional patron ( for visiting Auto guys wanting to Bar Hop, I'd take em to Bakers instead of the topless club places ).

So...

I'll have to "apologise" for being a declared Detroit Symphony Orchestra regular. I was born to it, it wasn't my fault. I did like Janis Joplin though. ( still do )

I only just recently discovered Mr. Jazzsheppard, Mr.Micaleff and Mr. JA revealing Jazz histories. I'm finding them interesting and worth the effort to learn about.

Thank you for your leadership in this area.

Tony in Venice

ps. this album looks like a Mofi release, I'll try to own it in 16/44

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Tony, you could have probably cut a better deal with those auto guys, if you took them to the topless club places :-) .........

Jim Austin's picture

I live in the jazz capital of the world, can be at Smoke in 10 minutes on foot, or at the Vanguard in 20 on a train. But I can also be at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in 15 minutes on a subway. I go to more classical music concerts--in better times of course, when there are such things--than jazz. No shame in that.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

Probably a compressed Cultural Capitol of the entire world.

My son lived on 51st & 9th. for 10 years, I'd visit and stay ( for cheap ) at the very Jewish Washington Jefferson Hotel. We would tour the music places having great times. Danny now lives a married life in Sacramento. ( no more NY,NY living in a 4th floor , half-bedroom, luxury walk-up )

You, I think, won Life's Lottery

Tony in Venice

ps. every time I get a wiff of garbage, Hell's Kitchen comes to mind. Fond memories, overall!

TNtransplant's picture

Should mention the Sue Mingus managed Mingus repertory ensembles that had been playing at the Jazz Standard on Monday nights, which hopefully resume when NYC reopens. I haven't checked them out in several years but in their early days at Fez in the 90's had a mix of emerging young players, many of whom are now top leaders, alongside masters like Ellington stalwart and Mingus boyhood friend trombonist Britt Woodman.

Also if in search of Jazz vinyl a must visit is the Jazz Record Center on 26th St. between 7-8th Ave. The owner, Fred Cohen, literally wrote the book on Blue Note pressings and is also a Mingus aficionado who helped reissue the extremely rare (200 original copies!) 1965 Mingus UCLA concert recordings back in 1984.

Lived on the Upper West Side when Mikell's was just down the street. Miss Manhattan but the Ryman is pretty cool.

PeterPani's picture

but I would play it only once or twice. To go up every 10 minutes to change a record destroys the aura of the music. I prefer 33 1/3 with less good sound. The other way is too expensive: to buy 2 boxes. I own a Thorens TD224 with automatic record exchanger. If I put all 4 sides of the 4 records in order on my TD224 secondary spindle I could listen to the whole album sitting on my sofa at once on 45 rpm :-)

Jim Austin's picture

You're the first person I've ever known or heard of that had a TD224 in everyday use--very cool!

As I think I made clear in this review, I too have serious qualms about 45rpm sets: One 33.3 LLP side is the perfect amount of music before you get up to change sides. It's just idea for concentration--for me at least. And yet, this is a lovely set.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

pbarach's picture

I don't have a turntable, but I like this album a lot (heard it on YouTube). I can do downloads, SACD, CD--so what remaster is in second place after this one?

TNtransplant's picture

I don't have the Mofi SACD which seems to have good reviews and may be the best digital remaster. It appears to be the 9 track album with 6 edited tracks as originally released, which presumably also used the same original source from which the Mofi One-Step was mastered (?). The edits cut out a few rough spots but also delete a few fine solos as well, probably for length to fit on the 1959 LP.

The now out-of-print 1998 Sony/Columbia 'Ah Um' SACD restored those 6 tracks to their original form and added 3 additional tracks from the same sessions. I'm guessing this is the same mastering available as a DSD from Acoustic Sounds or 192/24 PCM from other download sites . I haven't heard the downloads, but the SACD was an improvement over the prior CD releases up to that point.

Sony/Columbia also issued in 1998 a 3 disc CD-only set of the complete 1959 CBS sessions which includes all of 'Ah Um' as well as the companion follow-up 'Mingus Dynasty' with the unedited extended versions along with 6 alternate takes and 4 "bonus" tracks. (For vinylists, these complete sessions were first issued on 4 LP limited edition box set from Mosaic in 1992.)

NeilS's picture

There's also the first CD remaster issued in 1987 as part of the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series , which uses the original LP tracks (i.e., the edited versions). I've also got the 1998 Columbia CD remaster, which uses the unedited tracks. IMHO both have excellent sound quality.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a SACD or 24-bit downloads, if you can :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hybrid stereo SACD is available at Acoustic Sounds for $29.98 :-) .....

acuvox's picture

I suggest that your opinion about the the authenticity of American composers using Jazz semantics is myopic. Classical music has a long tradition of integrating folk and ethnic musical devices. Bach's dotted rhythms came from the New World and Chopin wrote concerti based on folk melodies long before Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein adopted Jazz harmonies and rhythms. They were not trying to BE Jazz, they were adding to their vocabulary.

It is also a matter of interpretation. The dots on the paper do not determine authenticity, it is the fingers of the musicians. Many of our leading Jazz pianists had Classical training: Simone, Brubeck, Corea and Hancock for example. Beyond our borders I would add Peterson, Rubalcaba and Gismonti. If you want to hear how successful Gershwin can be in the Jazz idiom, I recommend Hancock's version of "Rhapsody in Blue".

Anton's picture

Stevie Ray Vaughn up next.

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