CHARLES MINGUS: ‘Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings’ (Rhino)

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The ‘70s was a decade of remorseless change for Charles Mingus. It began on a high with the bassist/composer joining Columbia Records in 1970 but sadly ended with his death nine years later. In between, he enjoyed a fertile spell at Atlantic Records despite terminal illness casting an ever-darkening shadow over his musical endeavours. Perhaps because of that, the value of Mingus’ later music has often been underappreciated but as the sensational new box set Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings reveals, the Arizona-born musician produced some astonishingly vital music during that challenging period. 

Mingus joined Atlantic in 1973 after leaving Columbia under a cloud; the label had famously axed him during a ruthless, cost-cutting purge of its jazz roster that also saw Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett dropped on the same day. Reinvigorated by his return to Atlantic – which had released his late ‘50s landmark albums Pithecanthropus Erectus and The Clown – Mingus put a new, younger band together for his debut, ‘73’s Mingus Moves, though crucially, he brought back his old sidekick, drummer Danny Richmond, whose familiarity with his working methods provided a vital thread of continuity with his glory years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  

Though a veteran of 51, Mingus was thoroughly reinvigorated when he recorded the Nesuhi Ertegun-produced Mingus Moves using a new band comprising relative youngsters, trumpeter Ronald Hampton, saxophonist/flautist George Adams, and pianist Don Pullen. The opening tune, ‘Canon,’ is a sombre but beautiful piece written by Mingus built on a cyclical theme, while in sharp contrast, the lively and infectious ‘Opus 4’ is driven by a walking bass line and features sublime horn work as well as Pullen’s sparkling piano filigrees. The album is notable in that Mingus – regarded as one of jazz’s most revered composers – only wrote three tracks and allowed band members Adams and Pullen to contribute a couple of cuts. 

Arguably the best two albums in the set are the complimentary LPs, Changes One and Changes Two, which were simultaneously released separately and in a double album configuration in 1974. The high point of the first album (where Jack Galbraith replaces Ronald Hampton) is ‘Sue’s Changes,’ an episodic musical portrait of Mingus’ wife. Excellent, too, is the politically slanted ‘Remember Rockefeller At Attica,’ a hard-driving swing number that obliquely references the Attica prison riots of 1971 when 43 people died after the New York state governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the police to storm the building. Also included is a lovely homage to Mingus’ idol, Duke Ellington, which is called ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love.’ A shorter, alternate version (with vocals by Jackie Paris) appears on the Changes Two album, which opens with the uproariously lively ‘Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA,’ whose title sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. The standout cut is ‘Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue,’ an early 1960s piano composition that was revived as an epic 17-minute jazz fantasia. 

By the time of his next album, 1977’s Three Or Four Shades Of Blues, Mingus had been diagnosed with MS (called ALS in the US or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The progressive neurodegenerative condition had already begun to affect Mingus’ motor skills but he was still able to play bass. Interestingly, Mingus brought in three guitarists to the sessions – Larry Coryell, Philip Catherine, and John Scofield – who brought a bluesy, jazz-rock angle to the music. Both Coryell and Catherine feature prominently on an update of Mingus’ classic tune,  a frantic rock-tinged revamp of ‘Better Git Hit In Your Soul.’ Another iconic Mingus number, ‘Goodbye, Porkpie Hat’ – originally written in 1959 as an elegy for the great saxophonist Lester Young – is also featured and dominated by Coryell and Catherine’s duelling acoustic guitars. 

Mingus’ next Atlantic LP, 1978’s Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, was recorded nineteen days before Three Or Four Shades Of Blues and was the soundtrack music to Italian director Elio Petri’s 1976 movie, Todo Modo. The album, featuring a large ensemble of musicians, consists of two side-long tracks; the carnivalesque, atmosphere-soaked ‘Cumbia & Jazz Fusion’ and the more impressive ‘Todo Modo,’ which musically is more explorative. 

Mingus’ final two Atlantic albums, Me, Myself An Eye and Something Like A Bird were posthumous releases that appeared in 1979 and 1980 respectively. On both LPs, recorded at the same January 1978 session, Mingus was no longer able to contribute as a performer; by then, he could no longer walk and his disease had taken away his ability to play bass. But such was his indefatigable desire to create music that he directed the sessions from his wheelchair, the music based on sketches he had written. He had an enormous ensemble at his disposal for the last two albums, including saxophonists George Coleman and Michael Brecker, trombonists Slide Hampton and Jimmy Knepper, and drummers Dannie Richmond, Steve Gadd and Joe Chambers. The percussion trio feature on the epic 30-minute ‘Three Worlds Of Drums,’ the opening track on Me, Myself, An Eye, but its must-hear highlight is the lovely ‘Carolyn “Keki” Mingus,’ a musical portrait of the bassist/composer’s daughter. 

Recorded at the same session, Mingus’ seventh and final Atlantic album Something Like Bird – whose 32-minute title song was written about Charlie “Bird” Parker and was originally split over two sides of vinyl – is a long bebop-flavoured tribute to the alto saxophone pioneer who was Mingus’ friend and musical collaborator. The album’s other track, ‘Farewell Farwell,’ is shorter and slower but all the more effective because of those qualities; it’s a poignant valediction with an elegiac tone that functions as the curtain closer on Mingus’ Atlantic stint and career as a whole. 

The vinyl version of the Changes box set contains a bonus LP of outtakes; several alternate takes of the tracks ‘Big Alice’ (a bouncy, gospel-tinged tune) and blazing swinger ‘The Call,’ tunes which don’t appear anywhere else in the set. There’s also a different take of the soundtrack theme ‘Music For Todo Modo.’ 

The sound quality of Changes is fabulous, thanks to John Webber’s meticulous remastering at London’s Air Studios; the package looks impressive, too, with each album presented in sturdy sleeves that replicate the original artwork. To supplement the original liner notes on the jacket of each album, the box set includes a big booklet packed with superb archive photos to accompany Andrew Homzy’s informative new essay. While the handsome 8-LP version of Changes might be too expensive for some, there’s a more affordable 7-CD iteration available; and if space is a problem, a digital download version is also purchasable. All in all, Changes is a magnificent, unmissable set. While some Mingus aficionados will claim that the bassist/composer was past his peak during the 1970s, much of the music heard here, particularly the first three albums, suggests otherwise.   

(CW)  5/5  

The album, which is released on Friday June 23 can be pre-ordered here: Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings