Review Summary: Habilis et Sapiens..
Listening to Mingus is like reading a modernist novel – It is The Naked and the Dead
, Zuckerman Unbound
and Rabbit, Run
– a picture of how a feral masculine barbarian can pack soul, so punchy and propellant that it almost obscures the inimitable elegance and beauty posited within. In fact, aside from Art Blakey’s run through the early 60’s, one would be pressed to pluck out an arranger that walked the line between immediacy and precision with such a steady hand. Never as obtusely tangled as Monk, as maudlin as Coltrane or as capriciously light-handed as Ellington, Mingus was aggressive the way a deft boxer is – so exquisite and dignified in his assault that you felt dizzy with grace.
He matched Miles Davis in temperament and restlessness, but for all that coordinated chaos, there was always a sophistication to Davis’ tack that sometimes alienated the listener – so perfect and affectional that it seemed to be not of this world. Mingus’ arrangements on the other hand, move like earthly obelisks, their fingers callused, their feet streaked in mud. If anything, he was always easier grouped with similarly volatile musicians who preferred snaring passion, rather than letting it enclose around them – Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic or Clifford Brown.
Blues & Roots
is a singular entry in Mingus’ body of work, a show of myopic focus on swing, with no tangents into the avant-garde or classical that had made his past records thrash and foam with personality and range (The violent ambience of Pithecanthropus Erectus
or the future experimental, almost ballet-like affectations of his masterpiece Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
). Yet for all its supposed primitivism in aesthetic form, Blues
feels as vital and important as any of his best; six shots of a heady, unyielding brew.
Once “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” gets into gear, it is all Mingus, his bass clattering forward as the rest of the musicians rally to keep the swirl going uninterrupted. Horace Parlan’s piano adds tiers and variations into the driving frame, as the wind section takes the piece into the stratosphere.
“Tensions” spends every second of its buildup living up to the name, the brass roiling and pulsating in anticipation, as the echoey bass stirs the piece into resolution.
The knotty slinkiness of the bass-line of “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too” is a true testament of Mingus’ prowess, turning a rhythmic metronome into a sustained burst of complexity that doesn’t lose either its center or its primal pleasure.
Blues & Roots
crashes through the listener the way breakers do in rough weather, instinctual and beautiful and spilling over with measured substance. Mingus’ eventual demise from ALS is as tragic and as it is morbidly fascinating – a man whose life was built on virtuosic fingers rendered stiff and obsolete. What he left behind endures. There’s plenty that’s been said about what makes a genius – patience, madness, love, God, Nature, passion, opium, death. What seems less abstract is that ***ing poetry, that sheer beauty that sits so high, the thin air kills.