In 1973, Charles Mingus’ career was on the upswing. After a few years out of music, some band squabbles, and even getting evicted while being filmed by a documentary crew, he was finally getting something approximating his due.
There were the lavish orchestrations of 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music, a record deal with Atlantic and his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. A New Yorker profile from around this time speaks to how even his live shows were improving: “I heard half a dozen long numbers,” wrote Whitney Balliett, “and they were exceptional.” They could’ve been describing BBE’s new five-CD box set Live in Detroit.
Taken from a run of shows at Detroit’s Strata Concert Gallery, this set catches Mingus in an oft-overlooked period. He’s joined here by Don Pullen on piano, John Stubblefield on sax, Roy Brooks on drums, and Joe Gardiner on trumpet. It’s a different lineup than what he’d feature on Mingus Moves, which he’d release later that year. But then, there isn’t much trace of that record here, either.
Throughout the five discs, Mingus and his band move confidently through his back pages. Nearly every song is stretched out as long as it could go: “Pithecanthropus Erectus” goes for over 25 minutes (plus an alternate take, which goes for almost 20), while “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” is stretched for nearly 20. And since it’s a Mingus live performance, there’s a version of “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” and it’s given a suitably in-depth reading, too.
But then, from the opening, the band goes right at it. “Erectus” kicks the set off with a crash, with Stubblefield and Gardiner working alternately at odds and in unison; Brooks’ drumming pushing the song ahead, while Mingus and Pullen keep things from getting out of control. Although, when Pullen gets a chance to solo, the music really takes off: his piano explodes into shards of sound, and Brooks crashes around his kit, with only his cymbal keeping things in check.
Indeed, live albums like this – and this year’s earlier release Live in Montreux– show off Pullen’s skills, and how he was able to launch into explosive solos at the drop of a hat. No wonder Mingus liked him so much. But with extended performances like the ones here, everybody in the band gets a chance to show their chops: Brooks turns in a nice solo on “Peggy…” while Gardiner shines on ‘Orange…”.
There are a few surprises here, too. There are two versions of “Dizzy Profile,” a song Mingus would never get around to including on a studio record. It’s a slower number and a showcase for Gardiner, who takes the first solo in both versions. It’s slow, almost balladic vibe, anticipates where Mingus would be headed on albums like Changes: slow-moving numbers, but ones packed with tonal color and feeling. Apparently there’s lyrics, but regrettably, nobody sings on this set.
Another surprise? The ephemera included in this CD box set. There’s a lengthy interview with Brooks on disc three, and the little chat at the end is a chat with takes you right into the world of public radio c. 1973: a discussion about the band, and some listings for who’s coming in the future. Wonder if the Herbie Hancock set that DJ Bud Spangler mentions, which has long been bootlegged, will be a future release?
All in all, five CDs of Mingus might be a bit much for the casual fan, especially when there’s as much DJ chatter included, but for me, the package did a wonderful job of not just capturing a great Mingus lineup, but of taking me back to 1973. You get to hear the concert in a way similar to anybody tuning into Detroit’s WDET would have. In that sense, it’s a fascinating time capsule.
But as noted above, the early ’70s were kind to Mingus, and his music shines here. Partly it’s because of this lineup’s talent, but also note how he was slightly out of step with his peers. Take Hancock, for example, who was touring the dense funk-jazz of his Mwandishi-era albums. Or John McLaughlin, who was leading the fire-and-brimstone rock fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Both of them sound hopelessly rooted in 1973. But Mingus’ music, as this set shows, remains timeless. words/m milner