Jazz Portraits - Mingus In Wonderland

Mingus in WonderlandOne of my favorite albums, Mingus In Wonderland eschews his typical big band arrangements and instrumentation for a pared-down quintet. Recorded live at the Nonagon Gallery (NYC) in 1959, this set has a comfortable intimacy - turn it up loud enough, close your eyes, and you could almost be there. While it's not clear whether the tunes on this CD are presented in the order they were performed, the opener Nostaglia in Times Square is just the kind of tune I'd pick for a warm up - and has a bit of that feeling to it, as the group eases into the tune, sounding more sure-footed and assertive as the piece unfolds. In part, opening solo may be responsible for this, coming off as more of a limbering up on assorted Parkerisms, blues and bop cliches more than anything else. In any case, he further establishes the easygoing, swinging mood of the piece, sounding relatively laid back even on the double-timed choruses. This is followed by an extremely perfunctory solo from (a last minute sub for Mingus' regular on the piano bench, ) on piano, after which steps in and things start getting down to it.

Ervin's stark tone and unique tonality are instantly recognizable, and serve to heat things up a bit. Booker launches into his double-time choruses with more abandon: seizing the first bars to unleash one of his cascading, descending dimished runs that his solo has been building towards. The beat sounds like its finally caught up with him, making for a great release of the tension his angular solo has created. As usual, Booker also makes masterful use of his slightly pitchy (micro tonal) inflections throughout - a device that (another Mingus hornman) was also adept at using to great effect. Few bassists can follow a horn solo like Mingus: With no loss of energy, momentum or melodic invention. He enters with a signature boppish run, and only gradually allows the tension to dissipate as his solo winds down into trading fours with . This exchange rapidly becomes more conversational in nature (in the vein of Mingus' subsequent mid-Sixties "freer" or "spoken" explorations with Dolphy). This duet gets pretty out (especially for '59) before the band reprises the head at the end. At least as "free" as anything recording at the time...

Handy really shines on his lyrical interpretation of Can't Get Started, the second tune (and only standard, non-Mingus original) on this CD. Handy eloquently interjects his bop phraseology into his interpretation of the melody, actually keeping the melody close at hand throughout his solo, seeming to wring damn near every once of drama and beauty out of it as he goes (similar to a Johnny Hodges read of a tune - or Charles McPherson on Mingus' Celia...). Whether it was planned or not, the sparing contributions of Wyands' piano (and the complete absense of Ervin) make this piece stand out in terms of orchestration. (This may be attributable to what certainly sounds like a somewhat clumsy and non-musical edit between the sax and bass solos - unfortunately something crops up all too often in Mingus recordings). Nonetheless, Mingus' solo also is seeded with some deftly-placed references back to the melody. After Handy swoops back in back in with a great reprise of the theme (including a brief, shimmering flight into the upper register) Dannie pulls back and then drops out completely, leaving Handy and Mingus to duet together on a bit of a cadenza to close out the tune. The song's title notwithstanding, it seems like the group has gotten started by this point on the CD.

My personal favorite of the set is No Private Income Blues - perhaps I just wish I'd come up with the title myself, or maybe it's just that the tune lights right in with a Mingus solo for a chorus, with Ervin surging in in his wake - no statement of a recognizable theme, just blowing... This medium uptempo is where Ervin can really hunker down and wail, peppering his solo with his convoluted, chromatic patterns and slightly bent, sustained cries. The rhythm section essentially drops out, punctuating his solo with several true solo choruses accompanied only by terse utterances and exclamations by Mingus and Richmond in the background. Wyands' solo is again economic, but serves as a good transition into Handy's boppish choruses that follow. He stretches out a bit more here after several choruses, again venturing into the upper harmonics for some bent notes , Mingus and Richmond again backing off and surging back in, mounting the tension as Handy's choruses progress. Mingus starts laying down some of his signature pedal tones towards the final choruses which give way into several solo choruses by Richmond. It's after this that real highlight Income arrives: a smoldering series of fours traded between the two sax men. Perhaps not quite on a par with Trane and swapping back and forth on Two Base Hit on Milestones, Ervin and Handy have a great interplay here. The fours eventually become ones (sounding at times much like Trane's yet-to-come fragments of a few years later), with the two ultimately end up just straight out blowing simultaneously (with Mingus occasionally chiming in with some singing). Throughout this entire smokin' exchange, the rhythm section continues to periodically drop out, only adding to the overall energy when they come back in.

Alice's Wonderland is definitely the showpiece composition of the set - and a surprising big and lush-sounding arrangement to coax out of a quintet. As on Can't Get Started, Handy leads off with another very appropriate solo, resplendent in its lyrical qualities and melodic relevance. Mingus' solo follows this up in a similar vein with a relatively succinct solo that ushers in a a return of the melody. Wonderland ends with a group trill that transforms into a wash if trills and siren-like wails that bring to mind Varese's Ionisation - another taste of the breadth of Mingus' conception, which even in 1959 spanned everything from orchestrations to sounds one would expect to hear on a mid-60's date...

Jazz Portraits - Mingus In Wonderland (United Artists UAJ 14005)
"Nonagon Art Gallery", NYC
January 16, 1959