On a new box set from mail-order house Mosaic Records, Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65, the jazz legend's bands usually number between five and eight players. The bassist often made those bands sound bigger. He'd been using midsize ensembles since the '50s, but his new ones were more flexible than ever, light on their feet but able to fill in backgrounds like a large group.
The concert tapes Mingus released or licensed in the mid-'60s suggest how little control he had over the recording process. Being on stage as the tapes rolled, he was at the mercy of local sound crews, as well as horn players who'd wander off microphone. The sound on the Jazz Workshop records can be a little raw, as if the explosive music caught engineers by surprise.
Charles Mingus had advanced ideas about collective improvisation and loose, mutable forms. But he knocked the like-minded avant-garde for failing to master the art of his bebop hero Charlie Parker. Parker's way of studding solos with bits of other tunes rubbed off on the bassist.
Mingus was an early post-modernist, making art from recombined fragments. He loved audio collages. In these concerts, he plays a few versions of "Parkeriana," a long number pasting in scraps of tunes that Charlie Parker wrote or played. In "Parkeriana Part 2," the saxophones slowly slide into tune; the stars gradually come into alignment.
At the heart of any Mingus band's quick-changing textures and beats is the rhythm section, in which Dannie Richmond's drumming expertly shadows Mingus' projectile bass. In all but one of the five concerts in the Jazz Workshop box, they're teamed with pianist Jaki Byard, who shared Mingus' love of jazz styles past and present. Byard could deal with whatever the bassist and drummer threw at him.
Mingus tackled heavy topics — in his stage announcements, poetic recitations and titles like "Meditations on Integration" and "A Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama." He was so intense as a bandleader, exhorting players verbally and with his bass, you can forget how much good humor is laced through his jazz, and the obvious pleasure he drew from it.
After his 1965 concerts, Mingus withdrew from recording until 1970. One problem he faced in that difficult time: complaints from folks who'd mailed him money for Jazz Workshop records they never records. In a cruel, self-administered twist, Mingus had become one of those shifty record-company execs he decried. You can hear why consumers were upset: They wanted this music.