Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pithecanthropus Erectus

Pithecanthropus Erectus
Charles Mingus, 1956

I've been a Mingus fan since I was a teenager. Partly it's because I'm a bassist and composer, so really your choices are Mingus or Bottesini if you want to idolize someone. But beyond that, Mingus is a looming inescapable figure because he travelled his own path (to put it mildly) in his life and in his art. I won't get into biographical details here - got to save something for when I write about the other records I own, right? - but suffice it to say that he was known for being a difficult personality, and he had his own set of musical priorities that didn't always coincide with the "mainstream" of the jazz world.

Mingus wrote and played music that spoke quite directly about how he lived in the world, and that is a pretty extraordinary thing. He found innovative and startling ways to express ideas/themes from sociology, politics, and psychology through music. Not to say that there's a secret hidden message in everything, but he was someone who wasn't afraid to imbue extramusical meaning in his work, overtly or covertly. I really dig that.

And really there's no better example than the title track of this album. "Pithecanthropus Erectus" is about the evolution and the self-destruction of our species, according to Mingus' own liner notes, but it's so much more than that too - a musical essay on race, on hubris, on xenophobia. I know it sounds ridiculous to assign that much connotation to 10 minutes of music played by a jazz quintet, but I swear to you it's all in there. The opening of the piece has sudden changes of dynamics from soft to loud and back again, and these relentless repeated tones in the bass. Always makes me feel like Mingus is trying to foment revolution (or at least thumb his nose at the establishment) in those repeated notes: "Oh, did you want me to play a slick, polished walking bass line for you? Well fuck you, I'm sitting here pounding away on this one pitch till I'm good and ready to switch to the next one!" The musical ideas get opened up and turned inside out by the players. The pianist Mal Waldron, a brilliant player, is in fine form on this tune, in no small way responsible for the overall tone of the piece.

The version of "A Foggy Day" is lovely, emerging out of "street noise" re-created by the players, and subsumed by the sounds again at the end. Really nicely done, especially when you hear the main melody of the tune and bits and pieces will remind you of the foghorns, sirens, and car horns that opened the track.

And I want to talk about "Love Chant" just a little, though maybe I should put this into another separate post. This piece has always been mysterious to me. It's big and sprawling, covering a lot of ideas, and in many ways it seems the most loosely constructed of the pieces on the record. I can't say that I have a real handle on what it's up to, but one thing that comes across pretty strongly is that it really is about love. In particular, the two saxophonists (Jackie McLean on alto and J.R. Monterose on tenor) play lines that slither and slide around each other quite frequently. The mood changes on a dime, the harmony becoming very diffuse for long stretches, then starting to coalesce for a while, then dispersing again. It's really amazing stuff, sometimes keeping me on the edge of my seat with tension and anticipation, and sometimes beguiling me with pure beauty (beauty of the groove or of the moment). There is some really incredible playing on this tune, and even if I don't always know quite what they're up to, the sense that the players are all in the same headspace, working together to communicate some concept or dynamic through shared improvisation, is evident in every note. Even when only one instrument is playing for a while, I feel like the whole ensemble is part of what's happening.

There is wisdom and grace and humor and pain here. Music to listen to deeply, to enjoy on its surface, and to reflect upon in quiet moments afterward.

itunes link:
Charles Mingus - Passions of a Man - The Complete Atlantic Recordings

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