In 2005, Blue Note raised the eyebrows (and expectations) of the jazz world by issuing the previously unreleased Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane Carnegie Hall concert from November of 1957 that literally replaces the few other recordings of the group both sonically and musically. In 2007, courtesy of Charles Mingus' widow Sue, with the help of Michael Cuscuna and Blue Note, gives us another heretofore unknown bit of jazz history with the Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy's Cornell University Concert from March 18, 1964. The reason this gig is significant is because apparently, not only didn't anybody know it was recorded, according to Gary Giddins, who wrote the (typically) excellent liners here, no one but the people who put on the show and the students who attended even knew it had taken place! The other reason for its historic importance is that it took place 17 days before the famed Town Hall concert and predated other European shows by the band by at least a month. This is significant because trumpeter Johnny Coles took ill shortly after, and Dolphy passed away a few months later. Until now, the Town Hall gig was the standard for this band, but it is safe to say with this current revelation that it will be replaced in the annals of the canon. This band -- Mingus, Dolphy, Coles, Jaki Byard, Dannie Richmond, and Clifford Jordan -- played perhaps definitive renditions of some Mingus tunes worked out previously at the Five Spot where he assembled the group, and were presumed to have first been performed, and recorded, at Town Hall. Much of the material was also performed on the European tour that followed and climaxed with an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
These two discs contain a number of debuts and some absolutely startling solos beginning with Byard's solo set opener "ATFW You," which is four-and-a-half minutes of genius and jazz history. Mingus' solos with skeletal Byard backing on "Sophisticated Lady" for another few minutes before the band takes off in earnest with a raucous yet amazingly playful half-hour version of "Fables of Faubus," that dazzles, to say the least, in large part because of the utterly inspired bass playing by the bandleader, and the embedded quotes from corny American folk songs to popular tunes to Chopin. Another debut here is the sextet version of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," which Mingus had only recorded before with a big band. The differences, as one can imagine, are striking, particularly in Jordan's solo. The introduction of "Meditations" on the second disc of this set is simply shattering. Over half-an-hour in length, it offers once more the genius in Byard's playing and underscores Richmond as far more than a rhythmnatist, and Coles as a soloist who could hang with anybody. Of particular note is the interplay between Jordan and Dolphy's bass clarinet: the tune once more embodies the best of Mingus' thought and inspiration as it takes solid note of the lineage of the music and extends it into the future.
"So Long Eric" also appears here, since at the time of this recording, he was leaving the band, and this piece was a thanks for his contribution to Mingus' music and not the elegy it has been consistently thought of (Giddins points this out). Another welcome surprise here is the sextet performing a six-minute rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (St. Patrick's Day was the day before), kicked off by a jaunty, swinging intro by Byard and Mingus. As the melody becomes pronounced the horns all kick in in unison, and Coles takes a wonderful solo, swinging hard and lyrical with wonderful counterpoint by Mingus and timely fills and comping by Byard, as a jazz version of a reel played by Dolphy on clarinet can be heard in the background. The final surprise is the only known recording of Mingus playing Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," with killer duo played between Dolphy on flute and Byard. Throughout, Mingus' bass urges them on, digging deep into the groove of the tune, and the dialogue between Mingus and Richmond is nearly telepathic. Despite all of these debuts, there is another very profound reason that this recording is so utterly special, which Giddins reveals near the beginning of his liner notes. There is a kind of exuberance and joy on this set that offers another side of the mercurial and stormy bandleader. Seldom has he sounded so at ease and relaxed as he does here. The confidence in the ensemble is complete, and he feels no need to push but only to encourage and tale delight in the proceedings. This short-lived group proves, as evidenced here, that they were a magical unit that may not have been around as long as Miles Davis' second quintet, or John Coltrane's quartet, but as under-celebrated as its various musicians were -- Coles, Richmond, and especially Byard -- the band itself was as innovative and creative even in the brevity of its existence. This double-disc is every bit as important as the Monk-Coltrane disc, and sounds very fine for a tape that has been sitting in a closet for over 40 years: it truly needs to be heard to even be believed, let alone convinced.