Jazz never fails to amaze me. Just when I think I’ve figured out an artist, they throw a curve ball and once again I’m blown away. In shopping for jazz albums there are a few things I keep in mind: I love classic staple artists like Charles Mingus, but I also have a major Jones for hip album covers. This two-sided affinity led to the purchase of Mingus at Carnegie Hall.
At home, I was initially disappointed to discover that the album contained a mere two songs, both of which can be considered jazz standards: Side One is “C Jam Blues” and Side Two is “Perdido”. Both have simple melodies, are well known to the jazz lover, and contain little in terms of expanding the genre beyond the bounds of the song itself. Then I noticed the length; each song is over 20 minutes long.
What sets jazz aside from virtually every other genre is improvisation. Sometimes a simple play on the thematic melody and sometimes stretching the chord progressions beyond comprehension, you never know what to expect. It all depends on the caliber of the artist. While Mingus is not one to choose a poor musician, which direction these artists would take was yet to be determined.
Still, a simple read of the liner notes on the back should have given some clue as to whether or not my expectations would be fulfilled. The first sentence alone was a clue: This was a jam session, pure and simple, a gathering of men from other Mingus bands to join the master with his latest one, onstage at Carnegie Hall. Of course, this was already apparent in the length of each song.
Placing the needle at the onset of “C Jam Blues” introduces the listener to the melody, a simple two note phrase. However, the melody is held to brevity as John Handy quickly takes over on Tenor Sax. His style is bold and rich with beauty and clarity—it’s almost as if he’s crafting his own melody. As Handy drops out, the bass/piano/percussion carry the song a few bars before Hamiet Bluiett strikes out in the upper registers of Baritone Sax.
George Adams follows, moving outside the frame of the standard with a rapid growling flutter that quickly enters the realm of avant-garde. In this moment, the smile on my face cracked into a sizable grin. If you have ever seen jazz live and are of the mind to appreciate such an honor, anytime an artist breaks such ground it is warrant to jump in the air and scream in awe.
One cannot help but gasp at Rahsaan Roland Kirk lets out a lengthy and hefty growl on his sax—continuing what Adams began. More soloists continue before resorting back to the original melody which turns into a free-for-all that leads up to the final growl of a note, encompassing the final few minutes with breakout solos and chords that destroy the standard major/minor preferences. As the note winds down its last minute the crowd erupts, drowning out the band; a feat only to be expected after such an awe-inspiring performance.
After the 24 and a half minute long “C Jam Blues”, one can only expect more of the same from the near 22 minute long “Perdido”. Mingus and company do not disappoint, taking it up a notch melody-wise and pulling all the same punches with solos that break into avant-garde, some reference a Bird-like style while others break free of even that mold to top the out-of-box experience from the other side.
In conclusion, this may very well be one of the best jazz albums I have ever purchased. The initial disappointment was wont; unwarranted and pointless throughout, never again will I question the power one can pack behind a common jazz standard. Art Weiner stated it correctly while praising the concert, calling it one of the most enticing concerts we at New Audiences have ever produced. It should be obvious by now that I agree with Weiner.
This review was originally published August 17, 2007 on the old version of FensePost.
Atlantic Records [12” Vinyl, 1974]
1. C Jam Blues