Review Summary: One of the best jazz albums I've heard. Mingus Ah Um is a near perfect combination of atonality and speed with vulnerability and beauty.
1959 was a more than a monumental year in jazz music. With the release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue
and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come
, the genre would never be the same again. Both of these albums are on the opposite sides of the spectrum; Miles playing with a minimalist feel and Coleman completely going insane with one of the first avant-garde and free jazz recordings ever. Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um
is the perfect bridge between these two extremes, and is better than both of these jazz classics for doing so. This album is a near perfect combination of atonality and speed with vulnerability and beauty.
The musicians featured on this recording are:
John Handy – alto and tenor saxophone, clarinet
Booker Ervin – tenor saxophone
Shafi Hadi – alto and tenor saxophone
Willie Dennis - trombone
Jimmy Knepper – trombone
Horace Parlan - piano
Charles Mingus - bass
Dannie Richmond – drums
What one will notice from the album’s first track, “Better Git in Your Soul”, is that this album is incredibly energetic. The main melody is swift and melodic, and very, very catchy. The added vocal shouts of “Oh yeah!” and “Oh yes Lord!” can be found throughout the song and show a strong gospel influence. The head also features collective several moments of collective improvisation which can be seen as a tribute to the jazz bands of the very young twentieth century. Mingus really shows his myriad of influences on this album, like “Open Letter to Duke” and “Jelly Roll”, which are tributes to the jazz legends Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, respectively.
What really makes Mingus Ah Um
so incredible is the contrast. The album seems very familiar to the listener because of easy-to-hum melodies and simple 12-bar-blues structures like “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, but also challenges your ears with often unsettling and disharmonic horn lines in the same song. “Boogie Stop Shuffles” simple structure has a swirling, nauseous feel which keeps the song from becoming easily accessible to anyone, but interesting enough for many listens. Another example of great contrast can be found in “Fables of Faubus”, a song that starts out as a mid-tempo blues but is often interrupted by double-time drumming, which supplies an uneasy feeling to an otherwise basic form and melody.
Charles Mingus also knows how to keep each song sounding unique with the careful placement of his ballads. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” provide incredible moments of beauty and set up their subsequent songs. The seamless flow between “Self Portrait in Three Colors” and “Open Letter to Duke” makes what I could consider to be the highlight of the album. The former, being the shortest song on the album, showcases tasteful saxophone melodies with lightly brushed drumming, before unloading a Coltrane-esque flurry of notes in the beginning of the latter. “Open Letter to Duke” is the strongest song on the album, as it features incredibly tight comping from every member of the rhythm section and saxophone melodies that should impress even the most pretentious of jazz musicians. The short drum solos help shift to the slower sections and none of the transitions are ever awkward. Drummer Dannie Richmond really lets loose on this tune, showing a strong Latin influence with a samba style.
The album seems to be divided into two parts, the first being very saxophone based and the last being very brassy with lots of trombone melodies and solos, though there is an unexpected clarinet solo from John Handy in “Pussy Cat Dues”. The low end of the second half of the album is also complimented with Mingus’ few solos of the album, all of which keep you on your toes. Mingus’ work on “Fables of Faubus” is very start-and-stop and his solo in “Pussy Cat Dues” is quite sparse with exceedingly light drumming, making the listener wonder when the band is going to explode. The later songs on the album are just as great as the first few, though they do come with their flaws. Richmond’s drumming on “Jelly Roll” features a loud, polyrhythmic click on the drum’s hardware that is more distracting than it is impressive. Mingus’ hard pull of the strings on “Fables of Faubus” is also abrasive and detracts from Horace Parlan’s piano solo. “Pussy Cat Dues” also teeters off in the last minute of the song and leaves something to be desired. These flaws keep Mingus Ah Um
from being perfect, though the album does come quite close to achieving just that.
In conclusion, Mingus Ah Um
is an essential jazz album despite its obvious flaws. Charles Mingus shows with this album that he is much more than just an incredible bass player but one of the most impressive and important jazz composers of his time. This album touches on all extremes, from the insanely technical to the sparse and soulful. While it may not be as important to the genre as the albums Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman released this year, it’s much more varied and just better.