Friday, February 1, 2008

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady: The Culmination of His Being

It's interesting how the rise of the album coincides with one of the low points of jazz over the course of its fifty year peak. The departure of Johnny Hodges in the early-fifties led to the nadir of Duke Ellington's Orchestra. Miles Davis' exceptional Impressions in Modern Music project (it was only later renamed The Birth of the Cool) resulted in high praise all round and a monstrous heroin addiction that made observers wonder if he was finished at the tender age of twenty-four. Charlie Parker was nearing his expiry date. Even Louis Armstrong was at something of a loss around this time, even if he remained an unbeatable concert attraction.

Artists were compelled to adapt to the album era. It's nice to think that commercial pressure railroaded them into selling out but it was nothing of the sort. Even venerable stallwarts like Armstrong and Ellington were intrigued by the possibilities of suddenly having forty-five minutes of music to fill; the latter responded with a series of superb tributes (Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, King Oliver) while the former pursued suites and song cycles (the Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder being one of the earliest). This approach was followed up by Davis and Gil Evans on their late-fifties trilogy (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain) which makes me wonder if the LP actually helped restore jazz's faith in orchestras at a time when they appeared to be dying away.

This leads us to Charlie Mingus. While others adapted themselves to the new medium, he was probably the first major figure to be perfectly suited to it. Whereas increased length tended to work against many of his contemporaries, it seems Mingus was aware of the peaks and valleys of the LP, just as he was all-too aware of his own strengths and shortcomings. If not necessarily the instigator of the concept album - seeing as how the album was an artifact of broadway it's fair to conclude that there were concept albums from day one - then he was certainly the first to recognize that an integral part of the 12" record was the notion of it being more than the sum of its parts. Is it any wonder rock listeners take to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady? Like A Love Supreme, it even occasionally feels like a rock and roll album.

His most grandiose statement until 1971's Let My Children Hear Music, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a ballet score waiting to be staged and choreographed. (I'm sure a modern dance company in Bucharest or Houston has indeed put on a movement piece in tribute but it's not the same as the Bolshoi, is it?) While the trio of cuts on the first side glide about amiably, the single track second half is a twisted, ugly step-sister, managing to succeed at summing up the entire album while brilliantly undermining itself. Displaying a sophistication like never before - without sacrificing the musical audacity he had perfected a year previous on Oh Yeah - this is not simply Mingus going from strength to strength but high watermark of jazz in general. It's too bad he couldn't sustain it: no one else could.

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