Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Released January, 1963

Practically self-taught, Charles Mingus was a trombone player-cum-cellist who was convinced to take up the double bass by a good friend, and later, under the teaching of prominent bassist Red Callendar, eked out a career in the Los Angeles jazz scene, playing with the big bands of Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and other jazz greats. He was known for his short fuse, and his erratic behaviour on-stage – and off; on multiple occasions he lectured the audience nastily for their rude chatter during his performance. Mingus grew to be widely respected for his ability to compose melodic and artful bass-lines, and his instinctive sense of rhythm and harmony. Mingus’ style was a merging of classical music, gospel, free-jazz, avant garde jazz, and folk music. In the early to mid 60’s Mingus struggled with mental health issues and financial problems, however this era was thought to be one of his greatest times of creativity, and spawned the release of what is widely thought to be his most prolific piece of composition and orchestration, “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”.

Recorded with an 11 piece band and overdubbed to create the sound of a big band, “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” consists of 4 tracks split into 6 movements. In the style of classical pieces, the movements are thematic; there are romantic themes, flamenco guitar solos, charming folk dances, and moments of pure, unadulterated improvisation. It’s an intense, intricate tapestry of harmonies and melodies that somehow all meld together. There are entire sections where the band descend into an interlude wavering somewhere between improvisation and rehearsal. The layers build and build, the tempo increases, it becomes multi-metric, and then, suddenly, silence falls. A breath. And then all at once the ruckus plays on, a crazy arrangement of melodies and counter melodies, dissonance, harmony, all together in the one jumble.  Other times, a single solo instrument cuts boldly through the chaos. The instrumentation is neurotic and exudes emotion, and I found it quite hard to listen to for long lengths of time.  I must admit I got a bit excited on Mode B, which features a technique I had never heard before, where the trumpet player (I think it’s the trumbet) seems to sing through his trumpet (Multiphonics).

When I listened to Charles Mingus, I could certainly feel that there were some strong classical influences; there are moments where structurally and musically, jazz and classical elements merge (a genre known as Third Stream Jazz), which I thought was fantastic. I personally like music to have structure, and the breaking up of the songs into movements, as well as the recurring melodic themes, sat well with me. I can’t say that I loved the album but I did enjoy listening to it and seeing the ways that Mingus created an orchestra out of 11 instruments and managed to tell a vivid (and schizophrenic) story without using vocals.  I found myself wishing I had a really good quality sound system as I’m currently relying on my iPod. I feel that a proper stereo sound system would really do the album justice as you would be able to appreciate the simple yet important use of dynamics (the light and shade and the loud and soft) that Mingus worked so hard to perfect.

Charles Mingus left a musical legacy that lives on even today; he blurred the line between composition and improvisation, and experimented with blending folk music with bebop, gospel with jazz, and all the while maintaining a sense of traditional classical form. If you don’t particularly enjoy jazz then you might find this album a bit hard-going, but it deserves a good hard go. I recommend you listen to it on a good qualitysound system so you can fully appreciate the musical greatness in surround sound.

I’m not the biggest listener of jazz, but I do like to dip my toe in from time to time. I have a Miles Davis CD, and an old Vince Jones album and even some Dave Brubeck, but that’s about it. It’s not something I hate, it’s just not a genre that particularly grabs me. You have to be in the mood for it, I think. Having said all that, I quite liked this album, which was my first taste of the music of Charles Mingus. His innovative use of overdubbing makes the eleven-piece band sound like a forty-piece orchestra, with his fabulous piano and bass work anchoring the musicians. There are so many layered textures of instruments and parts that sometimes the music threatens to overwhelm the listener. For this reason, I’m quite grateful there was no vocalist. Essentially this album is one piece of music that is broken into four songs, with recurring themes and reprises peppered throughout. To simply call this a jazz record doesn’t do it justice, as Mingus delves in and out of different genres over the forty minute running time, and the music evokes vivid imagery as it changes feel and tempo. One minute you’re enjoying a drink in an underground jazz club, the next you find yourself monologuing in your car questioning the death of your partner as the brass creates a film noir soundtrack. After dancing to a hot swing band you are dramatically sucked into a tense Mexican standoff as Jay Berliner’s wonderful classical guitar breaks into the musical landscape. Despite these jumps, it all works. It is an album worth experiencing and each subsequent listen helps you anticipate the upcoming moods and changes.

Charles Mingus is my first introduction to jazz proper. I’ve never been much of a jazz fan so have never made an effort to delve any further than what I’ve learnt from Howard Moon on The Mighty Boosh. There are only two words that can describe this album: effing brilliant. The thing about jazz is it is complex. It isn’t some dumb hooky pop album that wants to be your friend the second you look at it. You have to work at it with jazz and put in the effort to build up the trust. I think the biggest problem with any “out of the square” music is that people don’t have the patience for it. They want something neatly pre-packed with a pretty label that is inoffensive to the palette. Jazz is the black sheep of the family that doesn’t give a crap what you think about it. It is what it is. If you put the effort in, you will be rewarded tenfold. Luckily I’m well versed in working for what I like as my favourite musician is Tom Waits, my favourite movie director is Stanley Kubrick, my favourite author is Tom Robbins and I love bourbon whiskey on ice. Luckily for Charles Mingus I made the effort to give it a good crack this week. After three of four listens it all came together and a little switch in my brain was flicked. Having said that, this may just not be your cup of tea, and that’s understandable too. It’s an intense album. My old mate Jonathan Strahan, friend of afyccim, had this to say about “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”… “It has very loose theoretical links to Beefheart. Use of ambient sounds. Free jazz approach. Somewhere, between the two, lies Prince”. I reckon he’s dead right about that.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”… I’m still not, if I’m honest. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy listening to it though. This album is regarded as one of two masterpieces by Mingus, and ranks highly on several best album charts. I’m impressed by the fact that the whole album is really one continuous recording, and that the band played for nearly forty minutes non-stop, but by the same token, it’s avant garde jazz. Forty minutes is pretty restricted for those guys! It’s hard for me to pick out my favourite parts from the album, though I think ‘Mode D’ was probably up there. I like the bass solo that starts it, and there’s also some excellent classical guitar work in there. The whole album kind of takes me back to a time where I didn’t exist yet, where you could still smoke a cigar in a bar, and people drank martinis and manhattans. I found that I couldn’t really focus on what was playing for an extended period of time. I don’t know if it’s the possibility I have Attention Deficit Disorder, or if it’s because I found the majority of the album very similar. I mean, there’s a lot of great dynamics, all up and down, soft, strong and multiple solos, all in different times, but it all sounded kinda same-ish to me. I don’t want to take anything away from Black Saint, because I really enjoyed it, I think it’s just a characteristic of jazz music. “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, while clearly a jazz masterpiece, won’t be residing on my iPod for long. I just prefer my music to have guitars with distortion. Mingus totally had the bass covered though. Silky smooth bass skills.

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