Like too many American artists, Charles Mingus is finally getting his due recognition when he's too dead to enjoy it. Since the legendary jazz composer died last Jan. 5, four albums of his music have been released: "Me Myself an Eye" (Atlantic SC 8803) -- the last recording session he directed; "Mingue" (Asylum 5E-505) -- Joni Mitchell's new album of songs based on new and old Mingus compositions; "Passions of a Man" (Atlantic SD 3-600) -- a three-record anthology of Mingus' Atlantic recordings from 1956 through '71; and "Nostalgia in Times Square: The Immortal 1959 Sessions" (Columbia 35717) -- unedited and unreleased numbers from two 1959 sessions.
When Mingus made his first truly important recordings on the 1956 "Pithecanthropus Erectus," he already displayed an Ellingtonian sense of symmetry. On the title piece, the band surges softly, stops and then surges again as if an early primate straightening up. The band gathers momentum and the horns and piano are flung into centrifugal orbit around Mingus' stalking bass line.
There were many aspects to Mingus' genius, but the articulation of anger and lust were two of the strongest. The 1957 "Haitian Fight Song" (which the composer said could have been called "Afro-American Fight Song") opens with a Mingus bass solo that sounds like the bitter lament of a victim of repression. The solo transforms itself into a marching rhythm of resistance and Jimmy Knepper's trombone unleases angry shouts of rebellion.
On the 1961 "Devil Woman," Mingus takes a lowlife blues and milks it for all the sexuality it's worth. The composer shuffles in on the piano to set up the slow grind. Rahsaan Roland Kirk follows with a low tenor saxophone moan and Booker Ervin climaxes with a sax shout.
Mingus later took on the jazz-rock fusion movement and the electric guitar that represented the rock side. Miles Davis and other major jazz composers had made a clear break with their past when they took on fusion.Mingus proved stronger; he brought the full force of his own jazz history to bear on fusion and swallowed it whole.
On the 1977 "Three or Four Shades of Blues," he highlights electric guitarists Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine on his old standards, "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" and "Goodby Porkpie Hat." Their buzzing, whining solos are faced by a Mingus band response and eventually framed as part of a new chapter in Mingus music.
All the above titles are included on "Passions of a Man." Many of Mingus' best recordings were for Atlantic, and these three records cull from the sessions of his peak years of 1956-61 and his comeback years of 1973-77. Unfortunately, nothing from his rich big band 1978 Atlantic record, "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion," is included.
"Nostalgia in Times Square" is a less valuable collection because its main purpose is to fill the gaps of the 1959 Columbia sessions that produced two of Mingus' best records: "Mingus Ah Um" and "Mingus Dynasty." The four numbers that were never released before are interesting but less so than the pieces that were released.
When Mingus died he was involved with two projects. The first, "Me Myself An Eye," is a continuation of his absorption of the fusion movement. Bound to a wheelchair, Mingus couldn't play (the bassists are George Mraz and Eddie Gomez) and he had to direct through conductor Paul Jeffrey and arranger Jack Walrath.
Side one is taken up by a major new composition, the 30 minutes of "Three Worlds of Drums." The piece centers around three trap drummers -- the neglected avant-garde composer Joe Chambers, the fusion studio ace Steve Gadd and Mingus' right-hand man for 21 years, Dannie Richmond. Mingus' 25-piece band begins with a boisterous fanfare as if from seom jungle-covered lost civilization of musical priests.
Each drummer takes a solo that starts slowly as if remembering the first drum vocabularies. Then the talking drums build their rumble into volcanos; the fanfare separates each solor; then the drummers join two Latin percussionists in a festival of drumming. As the horns, basses and Coryell take their bursting-with-joy solos, the drums build layers of African tom-tom rhythms, bebop push on the cymbals, free jazz time changes over the tops and rock propulsion on the bass drum and snares.
The second side again uses the younger players to rework two old Mingus standars: the blues-based "Devil Woman" and the church-based "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting." Coryell gets a chance to play Chicago blues guitar while trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker show off their Memphis soul influence. The side closes with a lush new love ballad. "Carolyn 'Keki' Mingus," which is every bit as lyrical as his "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" tribute to Lester Young.
During the last year of his life, Mingus composed six melodies for folk-rock singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. On recent albums, Mitchell had become more of a jazz singer with the help of members of Weather Report and the L.A. Express. But her problem was the exact opposite of almost every other jazz singer-songwriter: Her lyrics were far better than her music.
So Mingus' rich music restores a welcome balance to Mitchell's songs. She records them with three-fourths of Weather Report -- with Herbie Hancock replacing the absent Joe Zawinul and two additional percussionists joining in. The album contains three of the six new tunes by Mingus, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" with new lyrics by Mitchell, two songs composed by Mitchell but inspired by Mingus, and snatches of taped interviews with Mingus.
Mitchell has an odd voice; rather than gaining effectiveness as it gets stronger, it's most effective when she's almost fading into a whisper. At that level her voice has the reedy, ghostly quality of a wood flute. Most of the music on "Mingus" is slow and Mitchell stretches her voice across the changing beat. Her voice is heavily echoed till it sounds like someone who has stayed up too late into the morning.
Mitchell's lyrics survive the tough comparison with Mingus' music. "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" becomes a look at great jazz musicians under racist pressure: "The sidewalk is a history book/And a circus/Dangerous clowns." The freer time in jazz allows Mitchell to vary her lines as much as beat poets rather than keeping them even for a rock beat.
Perhaps the best song on the album is "A Chair in the Sky," with Mitchell giving us this vivid picture of a dying Mingus in his wheelchair: "But now Manhattan holds me/To a chair in the sky/With the bird in my ears/And boats in my eyes/Going by."