Album Review: 'Mingus Ah Um' by Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus Ah Um Review
Courtesy of Columbia

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Mingus Ah Um is one of the supreme works of bassist Charles Mingus. Recorded in 1959 on Columbia Records, Mingus Ah Um built upon bebop conventions to create a masterpiece, at times roiling and dissonant, and at times pristinely beautiful.

In the mid 1950s, Mingus began composing and performing with a rotating band he called the "Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop." Mingus Ah Um marks the height of this ensemble's accomplishments.

Many of the pieces on the album are some of the most recognizable songs in jazz, and their performances are at once highly arranged, and yet loose and seemingly improvised.

The opening track, "Better Get it in Your Soul," is a jubilant gospel song. Over infectious blues riffs, the instrumentalists occasionally stray from the choir with rapturous outbursts. Throughout the statements of the melody, Mingus himself can be heard intoning like a preacher, singing "oh yes I know!" and "Hallelujah!"

"Goodbye Porkpie Hat" is a ballad written for saxophonist Lester Young, and named after Young's signature headwear. The melody is haunting and beautiful, and played in unison or octaves by tenor saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin except for one note, on which they play the dissonant interval of either a minor second or minor ninth. The single dissonance resembles a wince, and it's perhaps a subtle nod to Young's pained life.

The other ballad on the album is not as dark, but just as beautiful, and tinged with sadness. "Self-Portrait in Three Colors" features a dulcet unison line in two saxophones, under which the other horns eventually join in with counter lines. The accretive result is a swirling tapestry, with one dissonance resolving into another.

"Fables of Faubus" is a bitterly sardonic protest song. It is inspired by the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident in Arkansas, when Governor Orval Faubus stood in the way of desegregation in public schools. The song has also been recorded including biting lyrics, but this version attempts to express the same vitriol with instruments alone.

Release Date:

1959 on Columbia Records

Personnel:

  • John Handy — alto sax, clarinet, tenor sax
  • Booker Ervin — tenor sax
  • Shafi Hadi — tenor sax, alto sax
  • Willie Dennis — trombone
  • Jimmy Knepper — trombone
  • Horace Parlan — piano
  • Charles Mingus — bass, piano
  • Dannie Richmond — drums

Track List:

  1. Better Git It In Your Soul
  2. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
  3. Boogie Stop Shuffle
  4. Self-Portrait in Three Colors
  5. Open Letter to Duke
  6. Bird Calls
  7. Fables of Faubus
  8. Pussy Cat Dues
  9. Jelly Roll
  10. Pedal Point Blues
  11. GG Train
  12. Girl of My Dreams

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