Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pre-Bird: Mingus Revisionism

It must have been fun to try and predict just what Charlie Mingus was going to do next. While a comedy record (Oh Yeah) probably seemed inevitable and a tribute to south of the border debauchery (Tijuana Moods) would have surprised no one, what about a blues-soaked response to charges that he didn't swing enough (Blues and Roots; I'm sure Mingus being mixed-race had nothing to do with these criticisms)? Or the waltz of a newly freed slave (The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady)? Or revisiting compositions that pre-date one of his biggest influences? In a catalogue defined by erratic, unruly recordings, the decidedly traditional Pre-Bird remains one of Mingus' standouts, though not always in the best possible sense.

Probably because he was always going on about seeing his shrink (see his autobiography Beneath the Underdog as well as the liner notes to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), I can't help but take a pyschoanalytic approach to Mingus' actions and motivations. What could have brought on such a project? Did he feel caught in the shadow of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell? Did he have this need to prove that he was always a noteworthy figure? Much as I want to think that Mingus' sole concern was to honour the jazz tradition, I can't help but see this album as a vanity project, one meant to soothe his notoriously fragile ego.

But what does all this say about the music? The compositions themselves are impressively old school swing, paying such an obvious debt to Duke Ellington that it would be apparent even without the two covers ('Take the "A" Train' and 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me') but it often seems a little too buttoned down for such a wild band leader - though, to be fair, the more restrained pieces are among the album's highlights (the lovely 'Half-Mast Inhibition' is said to be entirely scored). Only on 'Mingus Fingus no. 2' does it feel like he managed to successfully merge his own creativity with an Ellingtonian backdrop. Elsewhere, his own touches seem tacked on, such as his Asian-derived bass flourish on 'Weird Nightmare' accompanied by the flutes of Eric Dolphy and Yusef Lateef - which seems like a nice idea if only it suited the material.

The irony is that Mingus unwittingly pays as much tribute to Parker's influence as Ellington's on Pre-Bird. His compositional talents were a given but swing failed squeeze him out of his shell. Without the rise of bop in the mid-forties it's impossible to imagine the bassist's unbroken string of first rate albums stretching from Pithecanthropus Erectus all the way to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (and this is if, like me, you're not crazy about the latter's follow-up Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, which many critics rate alongside his best work). Stuck in the middle of such an extraordinary discography, Pre-Bird is an unpredictable (or should we say 'Mingusonian'?) work, occasionally bogged down by the presence of one hero and the absence of another.

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