The more live recordings we find of beloved voices the more we can understand their process.
Live recordings are excellent resources to examine the process of and interplay between jazz musicians. In a studio, things can be spliced, rehearsed, and recorded take after take, essentially trading spontaneity for precision. Not only do live albums document the purity of improvisation and the tightrope act of live performance, they also give us insight into how a group or musician evolved from one recording or project to another.
In particular, for a legend like Charles Mingus, long-lost tapes of radio performances and live shows give insight into one of jazz’s most fascinating and controversial figures. Known as much for his genius as his demanding standards (and occasionally kicking musicians off the bandstand mid-performance), hearing Mingus live is an exercise in mad scientist musical experimentation. With Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden, BBE Music and 180 Proof Records have issued a recently unearthed, long-lost archive of Mingus’ 1973 touring quintet, a burning slice of proto avant-garde jazz mastery.
With the shortest track clocking in at just over 12 minutes, Mingus and co. take no prisoners. Jazz in Detroit opens with a take on “Pithecanthropus Erectus” that lasts just short of a half hour, an incendiary track that leaves the tune’s form smoldering. Saxophonist John Stubblefield’s solo starts clean and tasteful before morphing into a violent exorcism of altissimo and stabbing honks, all the backed up by drummer Roy Brooks and pianist Don Pullen who know when to interject and when to lay out. Brooks’ solo is a virtuosic display of percussive fireworks that never loses sight of groove and taste.
For the uninitiated, this is not the ideal introduction to Mingus. With every track clearing the ten-minute mark–and many even surpassing 20 minutes–it’s a monumental listening experience. However, for Mingus fans, true jazz lovers, and, really, anyone with ambitious ears, it’s a testament to ensemble interplay and the endless possibilities of improvisation. Joe Gardner’s trumpet work on “The Man Who Never Sleeps” exudes a sense of clarity and direction, deftly handing off the spotlight to Pullen’s bebop-influenced solo. Likewise, the dialogue among the quintet on “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” show how tight Mingus’ touring group was during the early 70s.
Still, for even the most hardened jazz lovers, tracks that clock in at double digits can start to lose their impact. Taken in as a whole the record can be exhausting, one behemoth of improvisation and chaos after another. Even with the mastery each musician brings to the collective table, thoughts and ideas bleed together, making the record as a whole feel abstract and self-indulgent. Jazz in Detroit is an archive of long-lost recordings, and should ideally be taken in bit by bit. The tracks were collected over a series of radio sessions, effectively a fusion of multiple night and sets, each with their own identity. Consider this record less of a “listen to it all the way through” album and more of a treasure of marathon performances, each one to be embraced and appreciated on their own.
There’s a great joke about how if up and coming jazz students truly want to learn about being a musician, they need to transcribe everything off of live recordings: solos and accompaniments, as well as the audience in the background talking and clinking silverware on plates. On Jazz in Detroit, the side noises of Mingus calling out to his bandmates and the audience cheering and mumbling makes the record feel like a full experience. Albums will always pale in comparison to seeing musicians live, yet the peripheral noises and whispers make the whole thing feel more intimate and immediate. Digitally editing out extraneous noise would have made the whole thing feel too focused on the music and not on the performance. Oddly enough, it’s these background noises midst Mingus and his group that gives the record a touch more personality and soul.
The more live recordings we find of beloved voices the more we can understand their process. Studio albums are tentpoles in musicians’ lives that document critical artistic moments, but bootleg live tapes and radio sessions show us their evolution and their process. They also show us expansion and nuance, allowing players to stretch their legs with uncommercial track lengths that would make A&R departments sweat bullets. Mingus was a monumental bandleader with an ear for the challenging side of jazz, and Jazz in Detroit shows how beautiful that challenge can be.