Charles Mingus: “Mingus at Carnegie Hall”
There’s always been a current of beautiful disorganization running through Mingus’ work, and the structure of this record really helps bring that out. Consisting of one track per side, the “extended jam” format works especially well for “C Jam Blues,” where everything builds up over eighteen minutes or so to a sort of joyful chaos before collapsing into the frenetic honking of George Adams’ and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s saxophones for several minutes at the end. More like this, please.
Some real folk blues here. Languid and ethereal, James’ high-pitched voice brings a powerfully mournful feel to the sparse arrangements (James accompanies himself on either guitar or piano; only one track features a sideman, Russ Savakus on bass). It’s the perfect record for a Sunday morning spent reflecting on – and probably regretting – those things you did the night before.
If this record feels like a live performance, that’s because it was more or less recorded like one. Many of the songs start out fragile but then build slowly, sometimes coming to a head with a crashing crescendo – but sometimes they don’t, and the tension just percolates a few minutes longer. The male-female vocal harmonies and the violin’s legato phrasing infuses the whole record with an inescapable feeling of loss. Deserves to be better known.
Released in 1984, this album would have been a lot better if it had been recorded four or five years earlier. Dreadful ’80s production techniques wash out most of the impact of a pretty solid, if not spectacular, collection of songs. It’s not just the synthesizers, though: it’s the backup singers, constantly inserting themselves where they don’t belong, who are the problem more than anything else. A more austere guitar / bass / drums / vocals approach would have done much to bring out the life of songs like “I Love You, Suzanne,” “My Friend George”—which still manages to bop along contentedly and stick in your head for a little while after the record’s over—or “Down at the Arcade,” a fun little closer. File this under “missed opportunities.”
Clocking in at slightly over half an hour, this album is about the same length as the theoretical optimum for any visit to Detroit. But unlike its sprawling namesake, this record is tight, focused and organized, a high-energy blend of jazz and funk that, at times, feels like it could drift into prog-rock territory with no more provocation than a stiff breeze. The city of Detroit has seen (heard?) its share of musical tributes; “Yusef Lateef’s Detroit” has to rank among the best of them.