Jazz and the civil-rights movement were closely intertwined, and two musicians whose work was at the forefront of this intersection, Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus, have new releases this month of rediscovered concert and radio performances that relate to the struggle—one symbolically, one explicitly.
“Rollins in Holland” (Resonance Records)
Rollins, who is ninety, is no longer able to play the saxophone, but his recorded legacy continues to grow. This three-LP set, featuring radio and concert performances from May, 1967, comes out on Friday, for Record Store Day (and as a two-CD set on December 4th), and it’s a major addition to his discography.
In 1958, Rollins recorded “Freedom Suite,” an album that featured, as its title track, a nineteen-minute piece featuring four movements with extended improvisations on four distinct but related themes. It stands as a crucial forebear to John Coltrane’s similarly structured album, “A Love Supreme,” from 1964, and stands on its own as perhaps the first jazz album to make explicit reference to the oppression of Black Americans. It did so both with its title and with Rollins’s note on the record jacket, which stated that “the Negro, who has long exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” The album features him playing the tenor saxophone as part of a trio, with the drummer Max Roach (who was also a prominent activist, the leader of the recording “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” from 1960) and the bassist Oscar Pettiford. It’s the same instrumentation that figures on many of Rollins’s classic performances, including the Holland recordings, and the format exemplifies a dimension of artistic freedom that Rollins made a crucial part of his social vision.
If every great jazz musician has a pull toward the other arts, Rollins works as a storyteller—he’s a great narrative musician whose solos build not only musical ideas but drama. His emphasis on melodic and thematic improvisation, along with harmonic exploration, gives him more musical material to work with than other soloists give themselves, and his inclination to see long musical story arcs adds yet another dimension to his art—and makes long solos inevitable. For music, time is space, and Rollins is a virtual landscape artist, one who sees panoramically and travels extensively through the musical realm of his time and through his own imaginative dimensions. Working with only a bassist and a drummer, Rollins kept most of the solo space for himself, and, in concert, he often played numbers that ran fifteen minutes or more—and such heroic performances are the heart and highlights of “Rollins in Holland,” where he’s accompanied by the Dutch musicians Ruud Jacobs, on bass, and Han Bennink, on drums.
Rollins, a bebop prodigy who made historic recordings with Bud Powell at the age of eighteen, developed and expanded his art to embrace and to lead subsequent modernisms, along with such crucial contemporaries as Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (who rose to prominence a decade later), and the 1967 Holland sessions reflect his central place in the music’s evolution. The compositions that he plays are from the Great American Songbook (including three renditions of George Gershwin’s “Love Walked In”) or the bebop-and-beyond book (including two versions each of his own “Sonnymoon for Two” and Miles Davis’s “Four”), but what he does with them is a novel astonishment. The majority of the new album was recorded in concert on May 3rd, and four of its five tracks run more than fifteen minutes, with two running for more than twenty. On the up-tempo “Three Little Words,” Rollins plays for twenty-two straight minutes, punctuating his vigorous variations on the theme with a wild skein of shredding tones and abrupt fragments filled with a gleeful range of musical quotations, including the standard “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and his own compositions “St. Thomas” and “Pent-Up House.” Then he slows down to an exuberant shuffle, which Bennink and Jacobs deftly follow. As the concert continues, Rollins’s shifts of tone and tempo grow even freer, with accelerations into mercurial high-velocity phrases of off-balance length that challenge Bennink and push the music into high-wire rhythmic ambiguity. In the mid-sixties, Rollins was pushing his performances to ever more challenging heights of freedom, both in what he did with the melodies at hand and how he associated them with a virtual sense of musical montage—and the Holland concert is one of the crucial documents of his art. These mighty performances, without any explicit political reference in the titles, are linked in form, tone, and ethos to “Freedom Suite,” and extend its stylistic range to the new times.
“Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975” (Sunnyside Records)
Charles Mingus, a virtuosic bassist and a complex and prolific composer, put political protest at the fore of his work, as with his 1959 composition “Fables of Faubus” (referring to the segregationist governor of Arkansas, and including such lyrics as “Oh Lord, no more swastikas!/Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!”) and his 1960 piece “Prayer for Passive Resistance.” Born in 1922, Mingus is a figure of paradox—and he knew it. He was the most original bassist of the era, as soloist and accompanist; he played with the great innovators of the time, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, and he also was a partner, with Duke Ellington and Max Roach, in my personal nominee for the greatest jazz album ever, “Money Jungle.” But Mingus, like Ellington and unlike the bebop heroes, was more of a composer than he was a soloist; his sharply self-aware confrontation with history was a matter of both politics and art. In a 1972 interview with John F. Goodman in the book “Mingus Speaks,” Mingus says, “Charlie Parker was the most modern thing, but actually I should have come before him. . . . Then Bird should have come in, but instead they completely ignored me and I had to go play Bird’s music. Which I’m glad I did—I learned a lot from that—but it’s not honest because it makes kids come up and think [jazz has] gotta fit to this form right here.”
The two concert recordings featured in the four-CD set “Charles Mingus @ Bremen” suggests just what Mingus had in mind regarding his intermediate position between swing and bop: Mingus’s bands featured some of the best soloists of the time, but, unlike when they were playing in their own groups, their solos were, with Mingus, as closely tethered to Mingus’s compositions as were big-band soloists. Yet they were doing so in the age of the heroic soloist, and Mingus gives the great musicians here vast swaths of solo time. Yet unlike, say, Rollins’s associative solos with his trio, their extended solos are patterned by the harmonic, rhythmic, and thematic contours of Mingus’s compositions. The results are highly characterized: as with Ellington’s band, each piece is more than a set of solos; it’s a musical world that seems peopled and dramatized. The artistic tendency of Mingus’s music is theatre; he often relied on voices (recitations and chants as well as singing), and Mingus, in relying on the history of jazz and variety of styles, ranging from stride piano to swing to bop to the avant-garde, treated idioms like personae, and worked best with musicians who shared his sense of history and of musical variety—and, for that matter, of derisive comedy along with heroic passion.
The 1964 concert, from April 16th, features Mingus’s sextet, which showcases one of the most original and innovative jazz musicians, Eric Dolphy, who, in June of that year, after leaving Mingus’s group, died, in Berlin, of diabetic shock, at the age of thirty-six. Dolphy’s recorded legacy is far too slight compared to his accomplishment, achievements, and the sheer quantity of his playing in the brief span of the early sixties. His extended solos here on alto sax and bass clarinet stand out, and have an emphatic place in Mingus’s compositions, including a tribute to Parker, “Parkeriana”; “Meditations on Integration”; and a thirty-three-minute version of “Fables of Faubus,” in which Dolphy plays a thrillingly extended and daring unaccompanied cadenza.
In the 1975 concert, Mingus’s group is a quintet. The prime soloists—George Adams, playing tenor sax; and the pianist Don Pullen, whose inclinations are toward the avant-garde—temper torrential, wildly vehement passages with self-consciously dramatic references to the emotional tones and melodic substance of Mingus’s compositions (which included the expressly political “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi USA” and the music-historical “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”). This quintet was Mingus’s last great band; he fell gravely ill in 1977 and was diagnosed with A.L.S., and died in 1979.
I’ve put together Spotify playlists for Rollins and Mingus, below.