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by Seth Colter Walls

April 30, 2014

Jazz 101: Mingus Muscle

by Seth Colter Walls  |  April 30, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

How raucous can jazz music be, and still sound beautiful? Eclipsed perhaps only by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) ranks as one of jazz’s most visionary, important composers, partly because he showed how gracefully one could overdose on power and beauty at the same time.

His songs seethe with the stuff of life: Anger, passion and humor are threaded throughout every tune (and seemingly every solo of anyone who survived working in Mingus’ bands). As a young man, he studied classical piano and cello. As an adult, he was a bassist of fearsome propulsion, as well as an imposing bandleader (who often yelled out encouragement -- or criticism -- from his position onstage), and sometimes a pianist who specialized in a muscular form of elegance. He led small orchestra-sized ensembles and wrote deft, near-chaotic charts for all the competing voices. (Hear the melodic layers pile on top of one another in “Hora Decubitus” and “Boogie Stop Shuffle.”)

But even in a quintet -- with players such as pianist Jaki Byard and reedist Eric Dolphy -- Mingus could create long-form chamber music-style wonders to rival those of Stravinsky. (See the half-hour Civil Rights protest ode “Praying with Eric,” elsewhere known as “Meditations,” to have your mind blown.)

Mingus Ah Um -- an album of nine originals that moves from earthy swing to dark lyricism and catchy, complex bop-inspired music -- is certainly one of the best jazz albums of all time, and deserves a front-to-back listen. (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a gorgeous farewell to Lester Young.) But the delights don’t end there. The appended playlist calls out indelible, forceful, joyous -- and tough -- Mingus tunes from a baker’s dozen of his best albums. And we’re not even stacking the deck with posthumous live releases (though many, like Cornell 1964, are worthy): All of these albums were supervised by Mingus and released during his lifetime. Better get this music in your soul, right now.

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