Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1: Charles Mingus, "Oh Yeah"

Artist: Charles Mingus
Album: Oh Yeah
Year: 1961
Label: Atlantic

High atop the list of great bass players is one name, and one name alone: Charles Mingus. Falling somewhere between insane and genius, Mingus was peerless across all of the jazz, bop, swing, classical, and other styles. Known for his innovative, and unorthodox bassplaying and composing, as well as his unpredictable mood swings, Mingus ranks among the greatest in all of jazz. With countless albums that define the word "amazing," it is quite difficult to pick "where" to start with his recordings. In 1961, Mingus took a huge chance and completely changed his musical approach. What resulted from this experiment was the stunning, wildly eclectic album, Oh Yeah.

What made the release of Oh Yeah so significant is that Mingus plays NO bass anywhere on the album. On Oh Yeah, Mingus hired journeyman Doug Watkins to play bass, and Mingus himself took over piano duties. Without the bass to get in his way, Mingus springs to life and he shouts random phrasings, as well as wild encouragement to his band throughout all of the songs. Mingus' strange, dark sense of humor can be seen throughout the album, in both the musical arrangements, as well as in the song titles. The album takes wild twists, and features bright, bouncy tunes like "Eat That Chicken," as well as darker moods, like the strange, spiritual-sounding "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me." Bringing in unconventional sounds from zoom-whistles to sirens to slow, haunting spoken word pieces, Oh Yeah is like no other jazz record ever.

Along with Watkins and saxophone player Roland Kirk, the rest of the band and producers Mingus assembled for the Oh Yeah sessions is equally as impressive as Mingus himself. Drummer Dannie Richmond handles each twist and turn perfectly, keeping each song gliding wonderfully. After his tenure with Mingus, Richmond went on to drum for the likes of Elton John and Joe Cocker. The paired horns of Booker Ervin and Mingus' co-arranger, Jimmy Knepper round out the bands full, phenomenal sound. All of the musicians prove their willingness to follow Mingus wherever he wants to go, and the "buy in" from the group yields an album that is nothing short of spectacular. Nesuhi Ertegun (brother of Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun) managed to do a brilliant job of production on what became a wildly radical project, but having recording legend Tom Dowd (who is largely credited with inventing multi-track recording) alongside him certainly didn't hurt.

Easily the most amazing musical aspect of Oh Yeah is the interplay between Mingus and saxophone legend, Roland Kirk. Kirk, known for often playing two saxophones at once, is equally as skilled as Mingus, and many believe that Kirk lived his entire career playing years ahead of the rest of the music scene. From straightforward jazz to the most avant uses of improvisation and musical fusion, Kirk's career makes the case that he may very well be the greatest jazz-sax improviser in music history. When Kirk and Mingus really "get swinging," like on the tracks "Hog Callin' Blues" and "Devil Woman," the interplay seems as if the duo have been playing together for decades. As the two circle around and through one another, the tension on the music builds and builds, and the two create an amazing firestorm of music around the band. They each fill the open musical space the other leaves with perfect timing and style, and they prove to be one of the finest jazz pairings ever. It is these moments between Kirk and Mingus that propel Oh Yeah from "good" to "legendary" musically.

Charles Mingus will forever be hailed as one of the most talented and influential bass players in history. Constantly pushing the boundaries of the jazz and be-bop styles, Mingus was equally talented as a composer as he was with his bass. Having played alongside the likes of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, and Gillespie, Charles Mingus was widely known as a virtual encyclopedia of jazz and bop. It was his deep knowledge of the music that enabled him to innovate and create new musical styles whilst keeping within the aesthetic. While it is difficult to find a "bad" Mingus recording, one of his finest and most amazing moments comes on the album on which he plays no bass at all, the riotously eclectic Oh Yeah.

Standout tracks: "Hog Callin' Blues," "Wham Bam Thank You Mam," and "Passions Of A Man."

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