Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too

When was the last time you heard a record that could barely hold it together? A record made by musicians who hated each other, or hadn’t showed for the rehearsals, or couldn’t quite handle the material?

Recordings have always been viewed as the place to make things perfect. Whether the musician was recording as a way to get people to gigs – Sonny Rollins, for one, felt that recordings were the obligation of the gigging musician – or as a way to do what was impossible live – Bill Evans or Lennie Tristano’s overdubbed records – the emphasis has always been on providing the record buyer with the best possible example of the musician’s art.

Things have changed, but the changes, if anything, have only solidified that goal. As the life of a working musician has evolved from 365 days of gigs to European tours, commissions and residencies, and as working bands have decreased as special projects became the norm, the studio is often the place to debut new tunes, which are then discarded for the next album, or to assemble the perfect band. Witness Black Radio, with its coterie of guests, or Joe Lovano’s Loueke-augmented Cross Culture. These days, musicians tour their records, they don’t record what they gig.

The last time I heard a record splitting at the seams was this morning. I was listening to Charles Mingus’s magnificent, mystifying album Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert. Recorded live in the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in 1972 and emcee’d by Bill Cosby (Bill Cosby!), In Concert‘s two hours of music are full of missed cues, awkward extra solo choruses, shouted chord changes, and general confusion and bewilderment. It also rocks, hard.

There is, of course, a difference between a sloppy record and a loose one. Many Prestige Records’ dates from the ’50s are sloppy; little to no rehearsals were a product of the label’s policies, not any artistic vision, and musicians were often thrown together by executives rather than chosen by the leader (think many of Jackie McLean’s Prestige dates).

A loose record, to my mind, is always intentionally so, because without some kind of organizing principle, the date is lost. Mingus had that principle. Like Thelonious Monk, he rarely gave his bands charts; he preferred to teach the band the tunes by ear. But whereas Monk was an exacting, if bizarre, bandleader – witness the scene in Straight No Chaser where he leads Charlie Rouse through an unfamiliar melody again and again – Mingus was a bizarrely exacting one. Monk was concerned with the note-for-note sound – a tune like “Trinkle Tinkle” or “Four On One” would sound like mud if improperly executed. But Mingus’ sweeping melodies and casual lyricism was suited to a looser approach.

Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert is the epitome of that philosophy – its flaws and its glories. It’s an all-star cast, with Bill Cosby introducing the tunes and Gene Ammons, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Chambers, James Moody, Howard Johnson, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Milt Hinton, and Jon Faddis joining Mingus regulars Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson in the lineup.

“Jump Monk,” the first track, captivated me from the start. The band is definitely what is known as a “large ensemble,” but it sounds more like a full orchestra – screaming trumpets usher it in, and the bellowing deep of reeds and muted brass under Gene Ammons seem to expand across a vast space.

The swinging “Us Is Two” features another solo from Ammons (he is, perhaps, overexposed) followed by a magnificent one from altoist Charles McPherson, a criminally underrated player. (The band starts to lose its way here, and Mingus can be heard shouting changes in the background.)

If all of the missteps distracted from the music, this would be a very different essay. But unlike Mingus’ At UCLA, a concert recorded in 1965 (also with trumpeter Hillyer and saxophonist McPherson), these flaws just magnify the strengths. It’s a pleasure to hear a gruff introduction for James Moody on “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too”, because suddenly there’s some humanity behind the sound.

The Mingus approach didn’t always work. At UCLA is a train wreck, with false starts and, at times, overwhelming confusion from the band – the same traits that scuttled Mingus’ Epitaph when he first tried to perform it in 1962. And it doesn’t always work here, either, with some tunes or solos missing their mark, or failing to live up to their potential.

Would a record like Vijay Iyer’s acclaimed Accelerando be better given the Mingus, rather than the Iyer, treatment? Of course not. But it isn’t the Vijay Iyers I’m thinking of; rather, it’s the middle of the pack – musicians who spend far too much time perfecting music that ultimately sounds like everything else. Mingus’ approach was not only different, it was suited to his own style of writing and performing; and when he recorded, he made sure he recorded that style accurately – looseness and all. The tightly scripted tunes of a Mehldau disc are awesome; by the time we travel down the line, the tightly scripted tunes of the guy just starting out don’t sound so fresh anymore.

Ultimately, Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert is less about the written page than about the impact on the listener. It’s less about the tunes, more about the sound. There’s no explicit concept here – just Mingus and his music. And that music holds more depth than any concept ever could, and more power than any rehearsals could have unearthed. Mingus was all about humanity in his music – human-ness. And that’s a lesson from which anyone could learn.

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