“I play or write me, the way I feel, through jazz, or whatever.” Charles Mingus
Unwrapping this box set feels like a moment to savour. When something of artistic and cultural weight that is unheard or unseen from the past appears to us all, it’s a time to slow down and immerse yourself. It must have been a hell of a day when DJ Amir Abdullah wrapped his ears around the original masters of this record. Lovingly kept by drummer Roy Brooks’ widow Hermine, the recordings emerged from a five day residency at Detroit’s Strata Concert Gallery in February 1973.
February in Detroit would have been deeply cold and the Motor City still trembling from the repercussions of the riots of ‘67 and the crumbling of the city’s social infrastructure. Probably the best soul and funk to ever manifest in the States emerged from this period and much of it centred on Detroit. Jazz was still a force but the focus had changed. The established Blue Note/Impulse/Atlantic labels were still putting out important sounds but the young required more fire in the belly, more righteous anger, their own voices. Smaller labels like Detroit’s Strata released records that sounded like the world as it was, tense, dangerous, troubled. The Strata Gallery was an extension of the corporation’s vision, a coffee shop, performance space, recording studio, whatever the day required to keep rolling. Heavyweights like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea, and Weather Report held down residencies. And so would Charles Mingus.
Though this isn’t Mingus’ big band, I can’t help being reminded of the astonishing ‘comeback’ gig by Duke Ellington at Newport Jazz festival in 1956, where a genius from another time revealed to the next generation where they came from. The inherently searching nature of the art form had moved jazz elsewhere but the relevance and presence of an older world class performer at full steam was something to behold and rouse the spirit. Mingus was also a reminder of a previous generation, (he had been releasing great records since the mid-50s, the opening track on this box set a muscular version of his “Pithecanthropus Erectus” also from 1956) who in a time of wild free-flowing experimentation and fusions of genres could still thrill with his tight control and rigorous post-bop discipline without losing expression and explosions of movement. Powerful voodoo indeed. Maintaining the spiritual connection between these two giants of jazz, The Duke is explored on the record with a gently handled version of Ellington’s own ballad “C Jam Blues”.
Preserved and presented here is a quintet playing like a big band. The sound is expansive, arrangements complex, potentiality reached, energy, mastery, accomplished. Synonyms galore. This is the real shit. Pianist Don Pullen mingles expressionistic jazz chops with a European classical repertory. Tumbling notes and hard-handed chords, as comfortable turning the melodies inside out as holding the harmony, he is probably the solo stand out performer on this record to be honest. Young saxophonist John Stubblefield (the only recordings of his short time with Mingus are here) moves between Coltrane-esque post-bop focus and free-handed roar. Detroit’s Joe Gardner (trumpet) had been playing with Mingus in Europe and here in his hometown, along with fellow Detroit native, the aforementioned Roy Brooks on drums (and what he calls a ‘Musical Saw’), earn and own their position in the quintet, the ability to be free (even wild at times) yet structured, striking in its power and effectiveness. Mingus himself effortlessly moves his bass from avant-garde twists and turns to the blues in a second, driving the rhythm one moment, his famous swing mutating into free-jazz expression the next. This record is the glowing intersection of tradition and abstraction.
Photo credit: Hans Kumph
Amir Abdullah and BBE have produced a collectable of worth with a beautifully realised box set of 5 pieces of heavy vinyl or as a CD set. With stellar liner notes from Paul Bradshaw (‘Straight No Chaser’ magazine) and a replica poster from the actual residency, it’s a lovely thing to own but that’s not the jewel. The music is iridescent, extraordinary really. This music is as alive as I am. Witness the richness.
Words by Justin Turford (Ex-Friendly)