Charles Mingus' debut for Columbia, Mingus Ah Um is a stunning summation of the bassist's talents and probably the best reference point for beginners. While there's also a strong case for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as his best work overall, it lacks Ah Um's immediate accessibility and brilliantly sculpted individual tunes. Mingus' ...
Charles Mingus' debut for Columbia, Mingus Ah Um is a stunning summation of the bassist's talents and probably the best reference point for beginners. While there's also a strong case for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as his best work overall, it lacks Ah Um's immediate accessibility and brilliantly sculpted individual tunes. Mingus' compositions and arrangements were always extremely focused, assimilating individual spontaneity into a firm consistency of mood, and that approach reaches an ultra-tight zenith on Mingus Ah Um. The band includes longtime Mingus stalwarts already well versed in his music, like saxophonists John Handy, Shafi Hadi, and Booker Ervin; trombonists Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis; pianist Horace Parlan; and drummer Dannie Richmond. Their razor-sharp performances tie together what may well be Mingus' greatest, most emotionally varied set of compositions. At least three became instant classics, starting with the irrepressible spiritual exuberance of signature tune "Better Get It in Your Soul," taken in a hard-charging 6/8 and punctuated by joyous gospel shouts. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a slow, graceful elegy for Lester Young, who died not long before the sessions. The sharply contrasting "Fables of Faubus" is a savage mockery of segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, portrayed musically as a bumbling vaudeville clown (the scathing lyrics, censored by skittish executives, can be heard on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus). The underrated "Boogie Stop Shuffle" is bursting with aggressive swing, and elsewhere there are tributes to Mingus' three most revered influences: "Open Letter to Duke" is a suite of three tunes; "Bird Calls" is inspired by Charlie Parker; and "Jelly Roll" is an idiosyncratic yet affectionate nod to jazz's first great composer, Jelly Roll Morton. It simply isn't possible to single out one Mingus album as definitive, but Mingus Ah Um comes the closest. Legacy's 50th anniversary edition of Charles Mingus' classic Mingus Ah Um album adds so much material that it might just as be well titled something along the lines of The 1959 Columbia Charles Mingus Sessions , for this two-disc set has not only the entirety of the original album, using unedited versions of four tracks that were shortened on the 1959 LP release, but it also has three outtakes; alternate takes of "Bird Calls," "Better Git It in Your Soul," and "Jelly Roll"; the entirety of the other album he cut for Columbia in 1959, Mingus Dynasty (with unedited versions of five tracks shortened on the original LP release); and even a bonus track from the Mingus Dynasty sessions with a Honey Gordon vocal, "Strollin' (Nostalgia in Times Square)." It adds up to about two and a half hours of music, and thus a feast for the many jazz listeners who consider these sessions (and the Mingus Ah Um album in particular) a peak in the jazz giant's career. As is so often true of extra-LP material on such packages, the three Mingus Ah Um outtakes aren't quite up to the level of the songs that made the cut for the initial LP release (though they're certainly OK), and the alternate takes are not quite on par with the ones ultimately chosen. Too, so much of the bonus material is taken up by the official Mingus Dynasty album that this could have just as easily been packaged as a two-fer set of Mingus Ah Um/Mingus Dynasty as a special 50th anniversary edition. For those who love the music, however, the labels are immaterial; however it's sliced, it's a comprehensive retrospective of Mingus at a vital juncture in his evolution. ~ Steve Huey & Richie Unterberger, Rovi