Friday, February 12, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #2: Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

When I was a teenager and started getting into jazz, I was told to check out Charles Mingus. The title The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady stuck out in my mind—it was very evocative, but of what? After a shift at Twist & Shout, where I had just started working, I took a copy to the listening station and put it on. The first track of the album-length composition started off with a repeated drum figure, then the full band came in with some of the most hauntingly beautiful harmonies I'd ever heard. This was all I needed to hear—I bought the disc and went home. Over the next few months, I listened to it repeatedly. I turned my friends onto it. We all sat around listening to this amazing music over and over again. I came to know it so well that I could sing along to all the solos and hear the tape edits. Still, it was mysterious and maintained its power. How was this music created?

That was almost 10 years ago. As my relationship with music has changed and grown, a lot of it that I once loved has lost importance. Mingus music and Black Saint in particular have not. Charlie Mariano's alto saxophone solos still send chills down my spine, even as I understand more how they are constructed. The rhythm section interplay between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond seems even richer to me now that I've experienced such interaction first hand. This album is an inexhaustible document. It is music that transcends genre—as Mingus asserts in the liner notes, it “is part of a very old idea that someday all good music will return from its assorted labels which inhibit it with fashions [and] styles...” I feel the reason for this transcendence is its emotional content. It is not an attempt at “making jazz” or merely a cerebral exercise.

Much of the parts that I used to think of as “hooks” are, I can see now, improvised by the musicians. But they are a result of Mingus' compositional choices—selecting a band, rehearsing with them, setting up situations that call out for these sorts of responses. Mingus again: “Charles Mariano knew tears of sound were what was the intended thought in the background and what also was meant to come out of his alto solo. No words or example were needed to convey this idea to Charles Mariano. Only his love of living and knowing life...”

There's not much else to say about this album except, check it out. It was formative and, I suppose, life-changing for me. I've talked to all kinds of people—huge jazz fans and people who barely listen to jazz—who feel the same way.
--Ian Douglas-Moore

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