Charles Mingus: Blues & Roots

Blues & Roots

It’s tougher for me to write about jazz. I’m not a musician, so I only know what I’m hearing, without actually knowing what the musicians are doing. I haven’t read nearly as many reviews of jazz albums, so I’m not fluent in the vernacular. And jazz was – and continues to be – an acquired taste, one I continue to work to develop.

There were three albums that I consider my gateway into being able to appreciate and enjoy jazz. Growing up, I didn’t understand it at all – it was just noise to me. Then Sting released his first solo album, featuring a saxophonist name Branford Marsalis. I bought his then-current solo album, Royal Garden Blues, and found myself enjoying parts of it and being bamboozled by other parts. Years later I found myself working in a record store alongside a young trumpet player and he introduced me to the other two albums that flipped that switch for me: Sketches Of Spain by Miles Davis and Mingus Ah-Um by the immortal Charles Mingus. This latter remains my favorite jazz album of all time.

Digging deeper into Mingus’s discography, I came across Blues & Roots. This album was recorded just prior to Mingus Ah-Um in February of 1959, but wasn’t released until afterward, hitting shelves on April 4, 1960 (near as I can tell – older jazz release dates are notoriously difficult to pin down with absolute accuracy). At the time I didn’t know they’d been recorded just months apart, I just wanted to hear more by Charles Mingus. 

Charles had been prompted by his producer to do a blues album but, I found out, blues means something very different to jazz musicians. Like Jimmy Smith‘s excellent Six Views Of The Blues, there’s very little here that, as a consumer and connoisseur of pop music, I would identify with blues music which, in my experience, has a lot more guitar and harp. That said, there are still nods here and there, such as on “Cryin’ Blues” where Mingus strings together just enough notes on his big double bass to suggest the classic “Blues In The Night.”

Moanin’” is one of the standout tracks on an album that’s superb overall. It starts out with a bouncing baritone sax riff courtesy of Pepper Adams that serves, along with Charles’s bass & Dannie Richmond’s drums, as the rythmic anchor and overarching theme on a track that devolves into cacophony by the first minute before organizing itself into a sweet swing number by the time the second minute clicks by.  The energy and delight of the musicians is palpable in the music as they take turns soloing for the remaining six minutes of the cut.

Also not to be missed is “My Jelly Roll Soul,” an alternate version of “Jelly Roll” off of the Mingus Ah-Um record. Here it appears in a somewhat less polished form, a looser construction, but with more jump and improv, like the musicians weren’t quite sure yet how it was supposed to sound. Those familiar with “Jelly Roll” will enjoy hearing a different take on it; those new to the track can sit back and tap their feet as the cut swings under the direction of Mingus’s bass and an excellent piano solo from Horace Parlan.

I don’t know how to write about jazz, but at long last I know how to enjoy it. Having done the work of finding what I like and what I don’t, appreciating intricacies that are frequently lacking from your standard pop and rock’n’roll, I can tell you that, along with the last two records I listed at the beginning of this write-up, Blues & Roots wouldn’t be a bad starting point for the jazz novice.  It’s a pure and undiluted work by one of the undisputed masters of the craft, but at the same time, there’s enough gentle swing and melody that even the noninitiate is going to find something on the album to enjoy.

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