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It’s funny that no matter what band Charles Mingus happens to be fielding, matter what the year, the music has a similar feel. A large part of that of course is that the tunes and arrangements are written by Mingus, and the rhythm section of Mingus’ muscular bass and Dannie Richmond’s shape-shifting drums remains a constant, but it’s more than that.
What’s striking is that Mingus’ conception of arrangement, which is based on telling and showing his players what he wants, rather than giving them specific notation, and the way he conducts from the bass chair, forces the instrumentalists to behave in an elastic way that’s instantly recognizable.
And so it is with the music on Changes One, from the last of Mingus’ great bands, completed by Jack Walrath on trumpet, George Adams on tenor (and vocals), and pianist Don Pullen.
Sue’s Changes is typical Mingus. The tune starts out with a shambling swing before organically disintegrating into free playing. Then we get a brief ballad episode before we head back into swing, which slows down again until the band drops out, allowing for a romantically rubato solo from Don Pullen on piano. When the swing returns, Pullen heads almost into Cecil Taylor pointillisms, playing the keyboard with his elbow and other avant guarde flourishes. When it’s George Adams’ turn, he too starts in ballad territory, almost like Ben Webster, having a romantic rubato solo, before heading into more modern, frenetic territory. And so it goes.
Listening to Changes One, I caught myself wondering, “Why is it that I dig what Mingus is doing here and I was so annoyed by Taylor Eigsti?” I know that seems like a non sequitur, but it happens that I caught pianist Eigsti at a performance at the Jazzschool back in April (you can check out the review here), and he has a stylistic fluidity in his arrangements that is similar in some ways to what Mingus is doing here. Comparing Mingus’ and Eigsti’s approaches to arrangement is instructive:
- In any one composition, Mingus might switch between swing, ballad, and avant guarde forms. He might play with tempo and dynamics as well. But that’s still only five things, and he’s staying within the jazz tradition. Taylor Eigsti manages to cram dozens of styles into an arrangement, and he’ll include harmony and pianistic devices from the classical arena as well. It’s just too much to process.
- Mingus does us the kindness of repeating the transitions, so that even though we’re passing through a good portion of jazz history through the performance, there’s a chance to check out the pattern a second time and even a third time. Repetition is a wise compositional and arranging method to use when you’re cramming together disparate elements. Eigsti, on the other hand, tends not to repeat anything. He might introduce a time signature like 15/16 for half a dozen bars, only to abandon it.
- Mingus allows time for any one section to develop. Often times, you barely have time to identify what technique Eigsti is using before he moves on to the next one.
The result is that Mingus’ approach to arrangement and composition, while challenging and nourishing, still has stylistic integrity. He manages to forge connections between the different eras of jazz, so there is a sense of continuity. With Eigsti, it’s all a hodgepodge.
Devil’s Blues might be a little harder for some listeners to swallow because of George Adams’ vocal, which is a bit of a put-on. As we all know, audiences tend to like vocalists, and Mingus thought that he’d like to have a number with vocals, so he came up with Devil’s Blues. The tune starts with a typically penetrating bass solo from Mingus before shifting into a blues-drenched groove. Adams’ vocal is rambling and coarse, but authentically bluesy, at least until he starts ends his phrases with screeches, which cracked me up at first, but got old kind of fast. Jack Walrath has a short and tasty trumpet solo utilizing a plunger, which has almost a New Orleans flavor. Pianist Don Pullen demonstrates his knowledge of barrelhouse blues.
The last tune of the set, Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, was written shortly after the great man passed away. Mingus skillfully transmutes many of Ellington’s compositional devices into an effective homage that sounds both like Duke and Mingus. Like Ellington himself, the melody and changes are sweet, but have an authority that comes from an encyclopedic understanding of the music. Similarly, the performance of the band is robust and tender at the same time.
Changes One, like it’s companion piece, Changes Two, would be the last time Mingus operated at full strength as a composer and arranger.