Prometheus unbound

Nobody struck at the soul of jazz like Charles Mingus. His music raged with paradoxical fury: intense yet funny, demonic yet spiritual, chaotic yet carefully arranged. That was Mingus. Oh, yeah. His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, reveals a tortured soul. But if you listen to the music, you already know that. In the long line of jazz's tragic figures, Mingus has a place on the bandstand with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Bud Powell. In the case of Mingus, you hear it not only in the thrillingly cacophonous, collectively improvised songs, but also in his tortured shouts--screams that pierce the music and push it higher, faster, farther. "People say I'm hollering," he commented once. "Man, I feel like hollering."

So overpowering is the emotion that Mingus conveys that the brilliance of his playing, composing, and arranging often is overlooked. He was a great and swinging bass player. He composed and arranged some of the most important extended pieces ever written for jazz, pieces that were bold and devoid of pretense. Mingus was not showing off how much he could do with a long composition; he was grappling for ways to express the bliss and anarchy within.

Atlantic has captured a nice slice of the Mingus myth and music in its new boxed set, Passions of a Man. Serious jazz fans will find that they probably already own much of what comes in the six-disc box. The albums included--recorded between 1956 and 1961--are: Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Blues & Roots, Mingus/Oh Yeah, Tonight at Noon, and Mingus at Antibes. One full disc is devoted to a Mingus interview conducted by Nesuhi Ertegun.

This is not a best-of box. You can't buy this package and complete your Mingus collection. You'd be missing The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, for starters, not to mention New Tijuana Moods. But there's no denying that this set contains a lot of Mingus' very best work, and it comes handsomely and efficiently packaged, with a terrific set of notes and essays. Producers have decided to present the material in the order it was recorded, so that some of the albums don't flow in the way we've come to expect. I've got no quarrel with that.

The first disc contains the Pithecanthropus sessions, which produced some of Mingus' best work: His five-piece band at the time featured the great Jackie McLean on alto. On the title piece, the musicians solo simultaneously, and the structure of the piece shifts according to their improvisations, a reminder that Mingus loosened the structure of jazz well before Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. Disc One also contains four tracks Mingus recorded as a sideman for vibraphonist Teddy Charles, none of which has ever made it onto CD before, probably because none of them is particularly worth hearing. Mingus gets hardly any solo room, and the arrangements are dull--it's hard to imagine what he was thinking.

Disc Two opens with "The Clown," which features humorist Jean Shepherd's nice but somewhat heavy-handed narration. One listen will probably be enough for most. The presence of two power-house pieces--"Reincarnation of a Lovebird" and "Haitian Fight Song"--make up for the somewhat clunky start of "The Clown," but overall this disc is still a bit of a letdown.

The third CD contains Blues & Roots, one of my favorite Mingus albums. Mingus used a nine-piece band--heavy on the trombones, hold the trumpets. The music here is not quite as adventurous as on Pithecanthropus, but it swings as hard as any music ever made. Solos by Pepper Adams (baritone sax), Jackie McLean (alto), Mal Waldron (piano), and Mingus are uniformly enthralling. Four alternate takes are included, and they offer these soloists a lot more time to stretch out on Mingus' challenging arrangements than the tracks chosen for the originally released album. Disc Four contains the entire Antibes, a fine session featuring fantastic solos from Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto, bass clarinet, and flute), Booker Ervin (tenor sax), pianist Bud Powell, and drummer Dannie Richmond.

Disc Five has the entire Oh Yeah session, which is boosted by the presence of tenor saxman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Mingus sings, plays the piano, and hollers more than ever--you might even say he raps a bit on the strange, free-spieling "Passions of a Man," which features one of the first overdubbing experiments in jazz. This disc is filled with many odd, semi-inspirational moments. Some of it swings with great humor, and some of it sounds like hokum. The sixth disc, seventy-six minutes and twenty-three seconds of rambling dialogue between Ertegun and Mingus, provides much interesting material. It's a kick to hear Mingus talk about his early days with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton, and the man's passion, humor, and musical scholarship are all in evidence. Still, the conversation is the sort of thing most people will listen to only once.

With any boxed set, I ask myself the same question: Is this the best way to spend my money (retail list $74.98)? For the price of this box, you could buy the three great albums included here: Pithecanthropus, Blues & Roots, and Antibes, and you'd still have enough money to pick up The Black Saint, New Tijuana Moods, and maybe even a used copy of Mingus' autobiography. You would miss out on the fine packaging, the new liner notes, and the alternate takes, but the foundation of your collection would be very solid. If a sense of completeness, however, drives your pursuit of Mingus, then The Passions of a Man is for you.

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Jonathan Eig