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A Guide To Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records Albums
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A Guide To Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records Albums

No less ambitious than his earlier work, Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records albums chart the bassist/composer’s final burst of creativity.

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When Charles Mingus returned to Atlantic Records in the 70s, the trailblazing jazz bassist and composer recorded a final run of albums in a burst of creativity that kept pace with his output at any other time in his career. Featuring new compositions, soundtrack work and revisits of classic earlier pieces, Charles Mingus’ seven 70s Atlantic Records studio albums – from 1974’s Mingus Moves to the posthumously released Something Like A Bird – reveal that the bandleader, who died before the decade came to a close, was still at the peak of his artistic powers. Collected together in the 8LP/7CD box set Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings, these records chronicle the final chapter of Mingus’ musical journey. Helping you navigate your way through this cornucopia of late-period releases, here is a complete guide to Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records studio albums.

Listen to ‘Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings’ here.

The backstory: One of jazz’s most significant composers

In early 1973, even the normally loquacious Charles Mingus was left speechless when his then record company, Columbia Records, fired him. Though the notoriously combative bassist/composer was renowned for his fiery temper, he wasn’t dismissed because of anything he had done, but because the label was having a purge of its major jazz acts. Columbia’s then boss, Clive Davis, viewed fusion as the new big thing in jazz and consequently sought to trim down his label’s roster by terminating the contracts of musicians who weren’t committed to electric jazz-rock. Besides Mingus, casualties included free-jazz maven Ornette Coleman and the pianists Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, who were all shown the door.

But Mingus, then a veteran of 50, wasn’t without a record deal for long; his position alongside the great Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as one of the best jazz musicians in history saw to that. In April, he rejoined Atlantic Records, the label that he had first made his name with during a fertile spell in the late 50s and early 60s, when he released the classic albums Pithecanthropus Erectus and The Clown, which helped establish him as a major force in modern jazz.

Having already recorded some of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums, the bassist ensured that his second spell at the storied New York City label was no less productive than his first. Between 1973 and 1978, Mingus recorded seven studio albums, as well as a collaboration with the trailblazing Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, for the posthumously released album Mingus). Sadly, on 5 January 1979, at the age of 56, Mingus succumbed to motor neurone disease, an incurable condition which he had been diagnosed with two years earlier.

The albums

‘Mingus Moves’ (1974)

On the Mingus Moves album, Charles Mingus’ first session for Atlantic in a dozen years, the bandleader led a quintet of mostly newcomers: flautist/tenor saxophonist George Adams, pianist Don Pullen and trumpeter Ronald Hampton. Significantly, Mingus also brought back a crucial former sidekick, drummer Dannie Richmond, whose familiarity with the bassist’s working methods helped bring cohesion to a session that featured only three new Mingus compositions among its seven tracks. Of these, Canon is the album’s standout track: a slow, melancholy, musical round defined by interwoven melodic phrases repeated by different instruments.

More upbeat are two hard-swinging numbers, Opus 4 and the edgier, more avant-garde-style Opus 3, the latter echoing Mingus’ classic Pithecanthropus Erectus title track. The democratic nature of Mingus’ band is reflected in the fact that members of his quintet wrote two cuts: the Pullen-penned Newcomer, written to celebrate the birth of the pianist’s daughter, and Flowers For A Lady, a Latin-infused piece by Adams. Singers Honi Gordon and Doug Hammond added a vocal dimension to the album by combining their talents on the track Moves.

Must hear: Canon

‘Changes One’ (1975)

Recorded over three days in late December 1974, the classic Changes One is one of the high point of Mingus’ run of 70s Atlantic Records albums. The band is the same as on Mingus Moves, except for ex-Ray Charles sideman Jack Walrath, who replaces trumpeter Ronald Hampton and proves an inspired foil for saxophonist George Adams. Despite its blithe, sunshine-flecked groove, the swinging Remember Rockefeller At Attica has a dark political subtext – its title references the Attica prison riot of 1971 as well as namechecking the then New York state governor, Nelson Rockefeller, whose order for armed police to storm the prison resulted in 43 deaths.

The epic 17-minute Sue’s Changes is the album’s centrepiece – a lovingly etched portrait of Mingus’ wife, defined by intense moments of febrile polyphony and slower reflective passages. The earthy Devil Blues – with vocals by George Adams – opens with a dexterous Mingus bass solo, while the album’s finale, Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, is an elegant and lovingly wrought homage to the jazz aristocrat who was Mingus’ biggest musical influence and had died in May 1974.

Must hear: Sue’s Changes

‘Changes Two’ (1975)

A companion album to Changes One (both titles were released simultaneously in October 1975, as a combined double album and as separate LPs), Changes Two originated from the same December 1974 Atlantic sessions. However, the fact that it featured some additional personnel meant that it offered a degree of musical contrast; singer Jackie Paris and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave bolster Mingus’ quintet on a shorter but more widescreen arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, the composition which had closed Changes One. There’s an Ellington association, too, with the Changes Two album closer, For Harry Carney. Written by composer/arranger Sy Johnson, it is a homage to Ellington’s famous baritone saxophonist, who had died that past October. In contrast, the album’s opener, Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi U.S.A., is a provocative protest tune wrapped up as a jaunty but graceful piece that slips in and out of waltz time.

The album’s longest track is Orange Was the Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue, an impressionistic rendering of a tune that first appeared on the 1964 album Mingus Plays Piano: Spontaneous Compositions And Improvisations. Reflecting on the two Changes albums, Mingus told writer Nat Hentoff, “They’re among the best records I’ve made because this band has been together longer than most of the bands I’ve had.”

Must hear: Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue

‘Three Or Four Shades Of Blues’ (1977)

Mingus was never averse to revisiting past compositions, seeing them as works in progress rather than immutable artifacts. For Three Or Four Shades Of Blues, recorded in March 1977 using a much larger ensemble than on his previous 70s Atlantic Records albums, he resurrected two of his “greatest hits”, offering a raucous take on his gospel-blues stomper from 1959, Better Git It In Your Soul, and a sensitive rendition of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his haunting elegy for one of the best jazz saxophonists of all time, Lester Young. But what is unique about these versions is that, for the first time, Mingus used electric guitarists, including Larry Coryell – who brings a jazz-rock aesthetic to proceedings – and a young and then relatively unknown John Scofield.

The remainder of the album, which proved to be Mingus’ most commercially successful Atlantic Records album of the 70s, is devoted to three new, blues-stained tracks. The best is the episodic title tune, which alternates between swinging passages driven by Mingus’ walking bassline and soft solo piano reveries played by Jimmy Rowles.

Must hear: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

‘Cumbia & Jazz Fusion’ (1977)

Consisting of two long-form, large-ensemble tracks – one recorded in Rome and the other in New York City – Cumbia & Jazz Fusion was Mingus’ keenly anticipated soundtrack to movie director Elio Petri’s 1976 Italian political drama, Todo Modo. Clocking in at 28 minutes, the title tune begins with the sound of twittering birdsong and pattering tropical percussion, which initially creates an exotic carnival vibe, though the continuously flowing piece eases into several different moods, seamlessly morphing from a dreamy ballad into an earthy blues number and then a brassy jazz-swing excursion.

The second and final track, Music For “Todo Modo”, is more exploratory, blending squealing free-jazz sax solos with Gothic organ chords, finger-clicking grooves and mournful atmospheric vignettes coloured by flute and cello. An ambitious entry among Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records albums, Cumbria & Jazz Fusion has the sad distinction of being the last studio album on which the great bandleader played bass.

Must hear: Music For “Todo Modo”

‘Me, Myself An Eye’ (1979)

By January 1978, when Me, Myself An Eye was recorded, Mingus’ illness had rapidly progressed to the extent that he could no longer walk and was unable to play his instrument. Even so, he supervised the recording sessions from his wheelchair, directing a huge, 29-strong cast of contributing musicians to create an ambitious large-canvas work; players ranged from veterans such the saxophonist Lee Konitz to the young horn-playing brothers Michael and Randy Brecker. Eddie Gomez and George Mraz played the bass parts.

The album was distinguished by two remakes of pre-existing Mingus tunes – the bluesy Devil Woman and the rousing, gospel-infused Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, both recorded during Mingus’ first tenure at Atlantic Records – but Side One consisted of a 30-minute, loosely sketched brass and percussion extravaganza called Three Worlds Of Drums, featuring a titanic tub-thumping trio of Dannie Richmond, Joe Chambers and Steve Gadd.

The only other new composition was the album’s standout track, the lushly orchestrated ballad Carolyn “Keki” Mingus, penned by Mingus as a musical portrait of his daughter. Me, Myself An Eye, whose title, said the bassist, referred to the omniscient eye of God, was released posthumously in 1979.

Must hear: Carolyn “Keki” Mingus

‘Something Like A Bird’ (1980)

Something Like A Bird was the second of Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records albums to be released posthumously, its two tracks originating from the same January 1978 large-ensemble sessions that produced Me, Myself An Eye. (Though it was Mingus’ final recording session for Atlantic, he would enter the studio one more time, to record with Joni Mitchell for what became the Canadian singer-songwriter’s Mingus album.) For the opening title tune, Mingus was assisted by trumpeter Jack Walrath, who wrote an arrangement based on melodic fragments and sketches the bassist/composer had given him on a cassette tape. What resulted was a barnstorming big-band bebop number whose title acknowledges Mingus’ former mentor, alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. The track, which takes up one and a half sides of vinyl, features an army of horn players (11 saxophonists, three trumpeters and two trombonists), some of whom joust with each other in a series of incendiary solo exchanges. There’s also a fiery duel between bassists Eddie Gomez and George Mraz.

In sharp contrast, Farewell Farwell, arranged and conducted by saxophonist and Thelonious Monk collaborator Paul Jeffrey, is less frantic and more measured, beginning as a delicate piece defined by a wistful main theme that is embroidered with snaking horn melodies and lush, intricate harmonies. Larry Coryell impresses with a passionately intricate solo on electric guitar. The piece’s bittersweet, valedictory tone is a fitting way to bring the curtain down on Charles Mingus’ 70s Atlantic Records albums.

Must hear: Farewell Farwell

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