Charles Mingus was one of the most demanding and often the most abrasive bandleaders of his day, but his considerable gifts as a brilliant composer and arranger have been increasingly recognized since his death in early 1979. This Mosaic box set collects various live performances of several editions of his Jazz Workshop between 1964 and 1965. The first edition of the band includes Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet), pianist Jaki Byard, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, and drummer Dannie Richmond, arguably the best band that Mingus ever assembled on-stage. The 1964 Town Hall concert originally featured just two extended works, the upbeat blues "So Long Eric," titled in honor of Dolphy's upcoming departure from the band at the conclusion of the tour, and the moving "Praying with Eric," which on other records is known as "Meditations on Intergration" or variations of that title. In "So Long Eric," Byard's lively piano steals the show until Jordan takes charge with his gritty solo, followed by Mingus and Dolphy's dissonant, squealing alto. "Praying with Eric" is a showcase for Dolphy, with his haunting flute backed by Mingus' arco bass in the introduction and the reedman's jagged, dissonant bass clarinet. This extended work never fails to impress in any concert version from the first half of 1964. Five unissued performances from Town Hall have been added, starting with Jaki Byard's rollicking opener "A.T.F.W.," his virtuoso tribute to Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and all the great "ticklers." Mingus frequently played a duet of Duke Ellington's, "Sophisticated Lady" with Byard during his 1964 concerts with this sextet, and his inventive playing is softly backed by the pianist. Included are "Peggy's Blue Skylight" and the extended tribute to Charlie Parker, "Parkeriana" (which incorporates a number of the alto saxophonist's licks and snatches of songs he recorded); though it is shorter than later European performances from the same tour, there is a fade between its two parts in the midst of Jordan's solo, due to a tape running out in mid-performance. Mingus' raucous "Fables of Faubus" (which brilliantly dismissed the racism of the then-Governor of Arkansas without needing lyrics), wraps up the concert, though it is shortened due to the imposed time limit of the venue.
The April 1964 performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam marks the last complete performance featuring the full sextet, as Coles was taken ill in Paris a few days later, collapsing on-stage and missing the remainder of the tour. All of this music was previously issued on a limited-edition European two-record set, though part of Mingus' solo in "Fables of Faubus" that was excised for that release has been restored. The audio is a little less clear than the Town Hall concert, with Byard's piano not quite as prominent in spots, though the lack of time limitations make the extended versions of "Parkeriana" (which features several of the members detouring into humorous quotes in their respective solos) "So Long Eric," the powerful "Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters," and "Fables of Faubus" a joy to hear over and over, as new facets within reveal themselves. "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk" wasn't performed at Town Hall but had been recorded a few years earlier in the studio. Coles sounds a bit off mike at times, but otherwise, the performance of this challenging, bluesy vehicle is flawless.
Mingus' appearance at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival featured a new band which retained Byard and Richmond, adding trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, and tenor saxophonist John Handy (a last minute substitution for the ill Booker Ervin). The set opens with a 21-minute medley of six tunes from the vast Duke Ellington songbook. "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" is an unusual set opener, as Mingus tantalizes the crowd with his soft pizzicato solo, backed initially only by Byard and Richmond, though McPherson briefly solos. After touching on several songs, Mingus launches into a rousing finale of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train." The version of "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk" lacks the depth of the earlier Town Hall recording with Dolphy, and the ensembles are not quite as tight. The version of "Meditations on Integration" (the same piece as "Praying with Eric" and "Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters") is notable because the sextet is expanded by the inclusion of several guests: trumpeters Bobby Bryant and Melvin Moore, trombonist Lou Blackburn, tuba player Red Callender, Buddy Collette (alternating between also sax, flute, and piccolo), and Jack Nimitz (doubling on baritone sax and bass clarinet), giving this masterpiece a very different color than the quintet and sextet versions with Dolphy from 1964. Unfortunately, there is some overmodulation that proves a bit distracting.
The 1965 Monterey set is shorter than Mingus had planned, due to his allotted time being reduced after John Handy's preceding performance ran over. The band includes Richmond, McPherson, and Hillyer plus trumpeters Lonnie Hillyer, Jimmy Owens, and Hobart Dotson, tuba player Howard Johnson, and Julius Watkins on French horn. Both "The Arts of Tatum and Freddie Webster" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" are previously unissued, though the former is a bit ragged, with Mingus beginning on piano and later switching to bass. Mingus' narration of the well-known commentary by Pastor Martin Niemöller (a victim of Nazi persecution) opens "Don't Let It Happen Here," acknowledging the danger of not protecting the civil rights of all people; the music that follows showcases a strong solo by Owens. After the haunting "They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux," the band departs with a spirited version of the traditional favorite "When the Saints Go Marching In," with the musicians gradually leaving the stage over the course of the performance.
The expanded edition of the 1965 quintet concert at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis is another treat. With Byard, Richmond, Hillyer, and McPherson accompanying Mingus, the band comes close to matching the excitement of the 1964 bands with Dolphy and Jordan, though still doesn't match the variety of sound. McPherson shines in the brisk reading of "So Long Eric," with Byard's distinctive piano inspiring his flights. A long medley of standards leading in Mingus' "Old Portrait" is followed by "Cocktails for Two," which the bassist sometimes played when he thought audiences weren't paying attention. The remaining six songs from this concert are all previously issued. The furious bop vehicle "Copa City Titty (O.P.)" finds McPherson in top form. Mingus narrates "A Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama" to mark the violence that civil rights marchers experienced from the police during a protest there, with an ominous musical background, eventually segueing midway to "Freedom," another of his spoken pieces. "Peggy's Blue Skylight" is notable because Byard and Mingus switch instruments, though Byard frequently admitted in interviews that if he started showing off on the bass, the leader would put an immediate end to the exchange. Mingus was a capable pianist and also takes a brief solo feature following "Peggy's Blue Skylight." "Bird Preamble" is in some ways like "Parkeriana," made up of fragments of Parker's solos and songs he played, though it begins with an alternately leisurely then uptempo rendition of Tadd Dameron's "Hot House." "Bird Preamble" has just as many surprises as "Parkeriana" and is never in danger of sounding predictable. The finale of the Guthrie Theatre concert is Mingus' "Timeless Blues," in which Mingus has a vocal-like instrumental exchange with Hillyer's muted trumpet before the rest of the band joins in for a more traditional blues.
Mosaic box sets have long set the standard for packaging and this volume is no exception. It includes Brian Priestley's detailed, incisive liner notes, numerous period photographs, and a history of Mingus' mail-order record business by his widow Sue. Initially intended to be six CDs, production was halted when some missing tapes were discovered, requiring additional notes, documentation, and a seventh disc, something most record companies wouldn't have done due to the added expenses. This limited-edition set should be considered an essential purchase for fans of Charles Mingus.