Review Summary: "The Clown" is a fantastic and quirky album that lights up the other side of one of 20th century music’s most volatile minds.
I vaguely recall reading a statistic stating that around 80% of all proposed and legitimate phobias only occur in the United States. While a part of me finds this hard to believe, another part of me realizes that it’s probably true. Americans are not only more exposed to all kinds of media than perhaps any other country, but the images, sounds, bold letters, and the oh-so-bright lights are more over the top; more intense. Case in point, I have a positively unshakable fear of clowns, which is also known as coulrophobia. So you can imagine my troubled, almost compromised point of view when dissecting jazz legend Charles Mingus and his eponymous album “The Clown."
Nonetheless I am in love with this record. It was recorded during a stage when Mingus seemed interested in exploring technical proficiency rather than the personality and ideas of his compositions. There’s no doubt, from the catchy and vibrant opening riff of “Haitian Fight Song” he makes his hunger for respect on his instrument known. At first he starts to noodle aimlessly on his bass on its lonesome, seemingly unsure of where he wants to go with this album opener, but then he decides exactly where he wants to go, and begins to subsequently enter what is undeniably one of the best riffs I have ever heard. Although after about a minute-and-a-half the obligatory drums and horns come, the production still manages to speak volumes of his intentions with this record. For one thing, the bass is the loudest in the mix. Whereas in jazz and really most music in general the bass is not usually at the forefront, “The Clown” completely defies this concept. It’s very true that as a musician Mingus was a virtuoso but as a composer he was better, and this threatens at times to be the albums downfall. However, his desire to be acute and technical is one of the album’s quirks and charms.
Another one of Mingus’s most interesting qualities is the various moods he incorporates in his music. In a documentary on him, there was a section that consisted of the man talking in the studio. At one point he seemed calm, respectful, and completely at peace. Then seemingly without cause or reason he exploded into a childish and vulgar fit, cursing at the producer. He was openly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and this scene, along with most of his music certainly reflects that. Although his inability to stay in one place might make it hard to concentrate on creating art, like the best artists before him he uses his flaws to create something timeless and beautiful. He allows this disparity to make his music interesting, and diverse. Channeling his problems is actually one of his most celebrated qualities. It’s what artists like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Mozart did before him, and it’s what artist like Eminem, Omar-S, Kanye West, and perhaps even Taylor Swift did long after him. What this leads us to is the album’s versatility.
The previously mentioned “Haitian Fight Song” is a catchy jazz classic. "Blue Cee" is a standard pretty piece. "Reincarnation of a lovebird" engages in a free-jazz onslaught at break-neck speed, and then there’s the album’s centerpiece, the album titled track. Not only is it exactly in the middle, it is “The Clowns” most important song; it is also one of the most joyfully psychotic numbers I’ve ever heard. It starts off with wacky melodies that make me feel like I am trapped in some sort of insane carnival packed with horrifying monsters right-and-left dressed up like clowns scarier than any I could make up without the song’s help. As the song kicks off, you can hear a sample of a crowd laughing. The hilariously 50’s like narrator of the song tells a story of a clown devoted to his craft. The mysterious announcer tells a story of a clown who worked as hard as he could to entertain people, but never got any positive response from the crowds he performed for. Despite wanting with all his heart to just make audiences happy, he’s still not good enough for them. This is no doubt a reflection of Charles Mingus’s own view of himself. It’s clear that as a performer he was uncomfortable with his role in society. He understood that the concept of working hard to create something then waiting helplessly while audiences and critics tear it apart is a little masochistic. At one point, the Clown accidently hurts himself on stage, and the crowd loves it. They joyfully laugh at his broken nose, and after that horrible and degrading night he starts to finally do well and find success. This represents that most of the great achievements of the human mind come from accidents. This means that Charles Mingus sees himself as a clown, living to serve the entertainment of others who don’t respect him as a musician or as a multi-racial American. After all, it was the 1950’s and people wanted to hear his music then they wanted him to get out of their faces, which he didn’t like one bit.
Overall, “The Clown” is a selection of superb songs and two classics which, despite variation, work cohesively together. It was written at the beginning of his career, and he would go on to bigger and better things but he accomplished something here. It’s an album that lights up the other side of one of 20th century music’s most volatile minds. Coulrophobia or not, clowns aren’t so bad, I guess, are they?