19 June 2008

Under the Radar: Mingus Plays Piano

Note: Under the Radar is a new feature, in which I will review an album that I feel to be worthy of wider recognition. The albums reviewed will either be selections from the catalogue of a legendary performer that are overshadowed by his/her other work, or the work of an artist who may not get the recognition he/she deserves.

Charles Mingus
Mingus Plays Piano

During his life, Charles Mingus was perhaps the most inventive jazz composer to have hit the jazz world since Duke Ellington, a talent whose skills were not matched until Wynton Marsalis began experimenting with long-form jazz in the 1980s. It is not surprising, given his talents at composition, that Mingus was quite the capable pianist. The liner notes to Blues and Roots inform us that, to give his music a more authentic blues feeling, Mingus taught the tunes on the album to his band members by playing them on a piano; his sidemen were to figure out the melodies and chord changes by ear. Mingus's skills were not limited to the rudimentary banging of chords and melodies needed to flesh out a tune, though. As a jazz composer (as opposed to a musician who simply writes tunes), the piano for Mingus was the only proper outlet for his imagination.

In his liner notes to The Impulse Story, a compilation of Mingus's work 0n the Impulse! label, Ashley Kahn quoted a witness's recollection of the recording of Mingus Plays Piano in 1963:

An in-house counsel at ABC Records, Phil Kurnit, recalls witnessing the album’s birth.

“Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”

"Just thinking on the piano" is quite an apt phrase in this case, as Mingus lets his thoughts flow onto the keys quite openly throughout the album. Beginning with "Myself When I am Real," the listener is greeted with the feeling that Mingus is being completely spontaneous and honest with his performance of his own tunes as well as the standards interspersed throughout the album. He employs a very free sense of timing which can be very rewarding, keeping me on the edge of my seat wondering if he can make it to the next bar on time. He uses this to maximum effect on "Myself When I Am Real," in which his rhythms are as disjointed and mercurial as Mingus was widely reputed to have been.

Myself When I Am Real

More impressive than the manic feel to his playing, though, is the deep blues feeling Mingus imparts on these tunes. "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues" is a highlight. First appearing as a barnburner ("Song With Orange") on his 1959 album Mingus Dynasty, Mingus reimagines it as a soulful blues on Mingus Plays Piano, and imparts a deep melancholy that is haunting. After playing the opening melody in a loose rubato, Mingus settles in with a slow blues figure, sometimes interspersing choppy interludes between phrases, other times letting the chords at the end of phrases ring for maximum effect. Listening to it after reading Ashley Kahn's quote, it is probable that this is the type of feeling that Phil Kurnit described when he spoke of hearing Mingus "just thinking on the piano" when he was playing alone in the studio, contemplating loss and mortality through the familiar language of the blues.

Orange Was the Color of Her Dress

Mingus's left hand is much like his style of comping on bass: very heavy, melodic, and full of intricate rhythmic figures that dance around the beat before landing squarely on the beat. His right hand is reminiscent of the fire of Bud Powell or Art Tatum, but with less metronomic precision (as I wrote earlier, though, this is not a criticism). Mingus the piano player is often just as enthralling and satisfying as Mingus the bassist and bandleader. Though he would play piano on a few other recordings in his life (most notably on Oh Yeah), he would never release another solo piano recording. It would have been fascinating to hear Mingus take on any number of his other compositions or favorite standards, but now, we can only imagine what that would have sounded like.

Track Listing: Myself When I Am Real Mingus; I Can't Get Started; Body and Soul; Roland Kirk's Message; Memories of You; She's Just Miss Popular Hybird; Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues; Meditations for Moses; Old Portrait; I'm Getting Sentimental over You; Compositional Theme Story: Medleys, Anthems and Folklore
Personnel: Charles Mingus, piano

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