October 28, 2021

Charles Mingus – ‘At Carnegie Hall’ – “epic blowing fest from 1974 gets full release at last”

WARNER MUSIC         11th June 2021

This 1974 concert is getting its first full release and on a 3 LP vinyl set (or 2 CD). It had a partial release in the seventies, but only the stellar and wild second set was featured – two wild blowing extravaganzas, each an LP side long. In fact, all the tracks see the wild playing and the first set opens with a version of Celia over twenty minutes long, full of honking, vamping big solos and duets. Every other piece is a full LP side long, too, and the band gets a full workout.

So why was it not all released? Well, three LPs was an awful lot of music back then and only opera buffs got them and then they were in glossy cardboard boxes at high prices (compared to today). Only bands like The Grateful Dead had tried the triple album format (and were mocked for the indulgence). The other factor is that the second set is amazing and that the New York Times, in reviewing the concert, said they were underwhelmed by colourless solos in the first half and only had a kind word for Big Alice, the set-closer. They were spoilt rotten, that paper – nowadays a set like that is golden treasure and I’m delighted to get to hear it.

Mingus was a larger than life figure and fans hold his albums, like Ah Um, in high regard. Onstage, he had different bands in different eras. This one is a big Post-Bop expedition. This is Mingus as band leader and, though his instrument is the bass, it isn’t pre-eminent; the craft is in assembling the band and in guiding them to do their best. This is a special band, a quintet at the outset, an octet by the end. The first half has Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax and his post-Coltrane stylings of crazy noodling and streams of notes feature large. Don Pullen on piano manages to maintain an exciting punchy groove throughout the extended expeditions.

At the end of the first half, Mingus announces “a fifteen minute intermission and we’ll be back with the battle of the saxes”. He’s not kidding. Alongside the band, he brings in three more saxes from his previous bands, most notably Rahsaan Roland Kirk and they proceed to shred each other in turn, each upping the temperature. There is a combination of styles, from Hard Bop to contemporary freer wailing and the beauty is that they are tied to two songs from the big band tradition that Duke Ellington made famous – C Jam Blues and Perdido. It is like a history of jazz played with slamming levels of challenge between the contributors. 

But this wrongly-maligned first half? It has a couple of stone-classic Mingus numbers – Fables Of Faubus (stretched to twenty minutes and featuring Bluitt blowing hard from the outset against a piano that keeps the tune on track) and the aforementioned Celia. Fables swings hard on a solid rhythm section, grooving big and the inevitable bass solo is a delight. Big Alice, the set closer, is solidly propulsive, on a marginally more laid-back base, with sax and trumpet flying high above, with the drums accelerating every so often to egg them on.

The concert as a whole is a joy, with a mere six tracks squeezed into more than two hours of music. Every tune is blasted though and energy levels are maintained until the audience must have felt wrung out and hung to dry.