Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ah Um by Charles Mingus

The third (of four) 1959 albums that changed jazz is Charles Mingus' masterpiece: Ah Um.

Where Time Out broke the 4/4 time signature barrier, Kind of Blue based the harmonic framework on modes instead of chord progressions, and The Shape of Jazz to Come dispensed with chordal instruments altogether while also deemphasizing the melody, Ah Um paid homage to the roots of jazz and key musicians. As importantly, it made a political statement with Fables of Faubus (do read Marc Myers' excellent article about that song.)

By 1959 jazz had fallen from favor as a popular genre, due in no small part to bebop and the hard bop movement that followed. Bebop was undanceable, highly technical and was an acquired taste for those who were more rooted in swing and big band music. Art Blakey and Horace Silver's hard bop movement attempted to bring bebop closed to its blues and swing roots, but it was still undanceable.

From three of the four albums that changed jazz it is apparent that jazz was once again changing in 1959, retrogressing in many ways to the same flaws that plagued bebop. For the record I love bebop, but I am a musician who can find happiness in digging through the technical underpinnings of its complexity and requirement for virtuoso playing skills. I also don't dance. Ah Um was different. For one thing you could dance to most of the tracks.

To illuminate the true essence of this album I am going to use a quote from Sean Murphys Mingus Ah Um: An Open Letter to the 20th Century

    Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington.
Murphy placed the album into context, but the best analysis I have come across is Charles Mingus - Ah Um from a blog called All Jazz Cafe that contains a wealth of other articles on jazz.

Charlie Parker once said that Music speaks louder than words, so here are a few clips from the album:

For the details about who is on which track, where it was recorded, etc. see this page.

Charles Mingus remains an important musician and inspiration to me. In future posts I will dig deeper into his music, as was as Mingus the man. Just for fun (and to provide insights into a single aspect of a complex, talented and even tortured genius), I'll leave you with this short story in one act play. For a more serious look, see this paper.

If you don't have Ah Um I recommend Ah Um 50th Anniversary Legacy Edition that also includes Mingus Dynasty (see my review), or an even better deal, Mingus: Three Classic Albums, which includes the first two plus Blues and Roots. If you like those, complete the set with Oh Yeah.

In my next (and final post in this series) I will discuss the fourth 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Enjoy.

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