The latest anthology of remastered recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note produced by Giovanni Bonandrini and distributed by CAM London was released yesterday. It is a box of four CDs, two of Mingus Dynasty and the other two taken from a live performance by the Mingus Big Band in Paris. Mingus Dynasty was formed in 1979 just after the death of Charles Mingus. It featured many of the musicians who had worked with him, and the objective was to keep Mingus’ highly innovative compositions in active repertoire. In 1988 the group expanded into the Mingus Big Band, since many of those compositions had been intended for a big band sound that Mingus could never really muster. There was also a Mingus Orchestra that was formed for the performance of Mingus’ two-hour suite Epitaph; but it appears that this third group was only formed for that single appearance. However, the other two groups continue to give performances on tour (at least if we are to believe the Wikipedia page for Mingus Dynasty). All legacy performances have taken place under the supervision and authority of Mingus’ widow, Sue.
It is no secret that working with Mingus was never an easy matter. As I observed when writing about Mingus Speaks, the documentation of twenty hours of interviews compiled by John F. Goodman, “Almost everyone who performed with him would inevitably have to endure an attack. Under the best of circumstances, the attack would be verbal; but, all too often, it would turn violently physical.” Thus, without disparaging Mingus’ creativity, which still rises above so much of the jazz repertoire (including much of the music created after his death), it would be fair to say that both Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band have enjoyed the “luxury” of figuring out how to negotiate the many technical demands imposed by Mingus’ charts without having to worry about getting into fights with the man himself.
From the point of view of the listener determined to plumb the depths of Mingus’ creativity, there are thus advantages to listening to these legacy performances, rather than any of the recordings of sessions that Mingus himself led. There are 21 tracks distributed across the four CDs in this new collection. There are only a few pieces that show up twice, and those involve one interpretation by Mingus Dynasty and another by the Mingus Big Band. The result is a generous share of Mingus originals all given clear and disciplined interpretation without ever trying to short-change any of the wilder aspects of Mingus’ rhetoric. Indeed, just about any track would probably provide an excellent introduction to one of Mingus’ own performances, since the listener is in a better position to sort out signal from noise (an advantage that the reader of Mingus Speaks does not necessarily have).
The only downside is that the packaging of this box, like most of the others in the series, leaves much to be desired. Each CD comes in an envelope that duplicates the original packaging. Unfortunately, most of the text is illegible, either because of the size or because it is obscured by the background colors (or both). This means that the serious listener will need to do a bit of equally serious Web searching to find useful background material. Nevertheless, there is definitely no arguing with the quality of the listening matter; and that is what matters most.