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A new box set captures an assortment of live recordings, some of them previously unreleased, made by bands led by bassist and composer Charles Mingus in 1964-1965. It's a monumental example of how a jazz great dedicated his life to his art.
"Box set" doesn't quite capture The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65; it's more like "limited-edition seven-CD package." It's particularly notable that the collection comes from Mosaic Records, a label known for its obsessive commitment to detail. Extensive liner notes explain the historical background and the musical ideas, with painstaking audio restoration and a discography which tells you exactly who plays on which tracks and when they were recorded. It's TMI in a way you'll either love or easily ignore.
Much of this material was recorded for Mingus' short-lived record company, Jazz Workshop/Charles Mingus Enterprises. (It was actually Mingus' second attempt at DIY recordings, decades before anyone with a MacBook Pro and an Internet connection could run a record label.) Portions of these seven discs have been issued commercially before, but they mostly remain fairly obscure — and, more importantly, this collection features entire CDs' worth of music that went unreleased when the label folded.
Charles Mingus Enterprises started in 1964, in the wake of the JFK assassination and amid the civil rights movement, as a co-production with the woman who was to become his wife. For Mingus, a tremendous bassist who also became one of the most celebrated composers and bandleaders in jazz history, it was also time for a new band: a sextet featuring the scorching multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. Dolphy joined the band in time for a European tour, after which he was supposed to take leave of the group for a while; Mingus' bands even played the blues "So Long Eric" in advance of Dolphy's departure. But Dolphy never made it back from Europe after complications from a diabetic episode claimed his life.
The music heard in this First Listen comes from May 1965, almost a year after Dolphy's death. It's a full concert given by a Charles Mingus quintet in Minneapolis; the first half was once issued as the LP My Favorite Quintet, while the latter half remained unreleased until now. Solo fireworks come from Lonnie Hillyer (trumpet), Charles McPherson (alto sax) and Jaki Byard (piano); Mingus' long-time drummer, Dannie Richmond, holds down the fort.
We open with the aforementioned "So Long Eric," transformed into a tribute, and close with a themeless blues. We hear a medley of standards ("Medley") and a jumble of themes made popular by Charlie Parker ("Bird Preamble"). We hear humor in a take on "Cocktails for Two" and the introduction to the rare "Copa City Titty." We hear protest in "A Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama." We hear a Mingus classic in "Peggy's Blue Skylight," and even a bit of flourish in a time-filling piano solo that Mingus takes himself.
A lot happened in and around Charles Mingus' career around 1964-65. As even this sample proves, it's no stretch to say you can hear it all in the music he made then.