This is clearly the year for rediscovered lost performances for the giants of jazz, first Coltrane in June, then Monk just this past September, and now Charles Mingus – all of them reviewed on this site. What makes this set of Mingus so fascinating are a few things – the intimacy of the 200 seat Strata Concert Gallery in Detroit where you can hear the enthusiastic audience communicating directly with the band, the fact that Mingus was clearly at the top of his game in 1973 as these recording come shortly after his orchestral masterpiece Let My Children Hear Music, and the fact that there are no other recordings with this quintet. The group included pianist Don Pullen, drummer Roy Brooks and trumpeter Joe Gardner (both from Detroit) and the innovative saxophonist John Stubblefield, like Pullen a new member of Mingus’s ensemble at the time, who performed with Charles for five months before leaving. Stubblefield later went on the play a major role in the Mingus Dynasty ad Mingus Big Band, but this is the only known recording of Mingus and Stubblefield on stage together. Pullen, on the other hand, stayed for two more years and three studio albums.
Also, this hard-driving three-hour set from opening night features the earliest known recording of “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” and a beautiful rendering (actually two versions) of “Dizzy Profile,” a waltz never officially recorded on any other Mingus release. The spirit of these performances is inspiring, accentuating Mingus’ greatness as a composer, and both energetic and restrained playing by the quintet to an audience that’s as engaged as any you’ll ever hear on a jazz recording.
As with any lost performance, there’s a story. Originally Mingus’s five night residency at Detroit’s coffee house/art gallery/concert hall Strata was transmitted live by producer and broadcaster Robert “Bud” Spangler for WDET-FM (public) radio. They were discovered by DJ Amir Abdullah rather serendipitously as he recounts here – “ in the summer of 2017, I received an email from the owner of Stata Records, Barbara Cox, stating that her friend Hermine Brooks (wife of drummer Roy Brooks) had in her possession a live recording of the Charles Mingus concert at the Strata Concert Gallery. Now, I knew of this famed 1970’s concert but I certainly did not know there was a recording of it. I eventually got in contact with Hermine and we had really nice conversation about the concert. From there, I was able to have John Morales (famed DJ and producer) pick the masters (x4 2 track tape recordings) from Hermine and transfer them to digital formats” He further relates, “ I was so anxious to hear what NO one had heard for over 40 years that I was busting at the seams! When I finally received the initial transfer I was blown away, not only by the dynamic sound of the music but by the intimacy of the recording.”
One listen will have you echoing Abdullah’s excitement of hearing the audience humming along, yelling praise to the band (“You Guys Are Beautiful,” “Do It! Do It!), and even side conversations. The banter between Mingus and the band and even the audience makes it feel as if you’re in the room with them. The Strata was an oasis in an otherwise unsafe downtown Detroit in the early 70s, still reverberating from 1968’s riots. Tickets for each night’s performance were a mere $5 at the door ($4 in advance). The sound quality is fine but certainly not immaculate.
As with Mingus’ music at the time, it’s a mix of blues, hard bop, modal jazz and outer-reaching soloing. Disc One has a shimmering 25-minute performance of Mingus’ 1956 composition, the now classic “Pithecanthropus Erectus” That’s followed by “The Man Who Never Sleeps” from his 1971 Japanese Columbia album and “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” from his Atlantic Oh Yeah, with strong spots from Stubblefield and Gardner. Brooks plays one of his homemade instruments, the “breathatone,” which changed the pitch of any drum it was applied to. Disc Two begins with Spangler’s introduction of the band followed by the recognizable “Celia’ and then a 39 minute interview with Roy Brooks and commentary. An alternate take of “Celia” appears at the end of Disc Four.
>Disc Three has he requisite “C-Jam Blues” with especially dynamic soloing from Pullen and Stubblefield, and another Mingus staple “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk.” The former, of course, was from Duke Ellington and the latter shows the complexity of Mingus’ composition with stop time figures, tempos changes and mood swings that stretch jazz into some far reaching places. The final piece “Dizzy’s Profile,” showcasing Gardner’s rich tone and sensitive soloing exists nowhere else. An alternate take also appears on Disc Five introduced by Mingus this way, “An this is a waltz written, which featured Dizzy Gillespie at Carnegie Hall and now features Joe Gardner.”
Disc Four contains perhaps the most exciting performance in “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” which has a delicate piano and bass conversation between Pullen and Mingus; and later Brooks on a tool he dubbed the “Musical Saw,” which he felt captured the vocal essence of the blues. Three of four years later the tune finally made it to an album, Three or Four Shades Of Blues. Also on Disc 5, besides “Dizzy Profile” is an alternate take of “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”
Just a few words on the players are in order. Brooks, the native of Detroit, was living in NYC and had been playing with Mingus for a short time, including recent stints in Europe. Brooks was an acolyte of fellow Detroit drummer Elvin Jones and you can hear some of those same qualities in his performance with Mingus’ challenging material. Prior to these dates Brooks had been a regular with Horace Silver and Max Roach. His interview with Spangler will shed light on his two trips to Europe with Mingus in 1972. He references fellow Detroit trumpeter Joe Gardner’s performance in Berlin. Gardner went on to record with Cecil McBee and Frank Foster but never issued an album as a leader.
This is pianist Don Pullen’s first performance with Mingus. While he later became a mainstay in Mingus’ units, he brought a mix of free/avant-garde jazz (which Mingus was not fond of) and a rhythm and blues pedigree , having played with Big Maybelle and Ruth Brown, where he primarily played organ. Suffice it to say that Pullen was versatile and apparently also a very lively performer who would use the backs of his hands or an occasional elbow to accentuate chords and tones. You can visualize this when listening to his solo in “C-Jam Blues.”
Newly recruited saxophonist John Stubblefield, like Pullen, was steeped in gospel and R&B as well as the avant -garde. Stubblefield had toured with Solomon Burke, was influenced by Bird and Trane, and had joined the revolutionary AACM in Chicago. Leaving in 1971 for NYC, Stubblefield worked with painted Mary Lou Williams and did a short stint with Tito Puente before joining Mingus’ quintet.
As you delve into these three and half hours of music plus 45 minutes of commentary/introductions, be assured that there is a wealth of information in the liner notes, with some intriguing information on the Strata Gallery – all by Paul Bradshaw, notes from Sue Mingus and a lovely piece by Abdullah entitled “Mingus, My Father and Me.” This stunner may fall just barely short of some other classic live Mingus recordings, but it is a necessary addition to the impressive Mingus catalo