This record is, for some, probably the most controversial of Mingus’ prime, for its infamous title track, a piece which contains spoken narration by Jean Shepherd. And it’s the one piece I’m not entirely sure what to do with so I’ll try to leave it for last.
The rest of the material on the album is just stellar.
I have read reviews of this album claiming “Haitian Fight Song” is the best thing Mingus ever wrote – and I have a friend who thinks so – I’m not inclined to argue. It is an utterly distinctive piece – I guess it’s “Mingusian” in the best way – showing off both Mingus’ gifts as a composer and as one of the great jazz bassists in history. I have a personal preference for Mingus’ more ambitious works later in his career, but this is possibly my favourite of his music for small groups like this.
“Blue Cee” is not up to that standard – what is? – but it’s still a pretty great display of what makes Mingus Mingus – the ability to combine the traditional and the avant garde in the same piece, in a way where you don’t really notice the avant garde unless you are paying attention. Mingus apparently claimed it was his first blues piece he’d released on an album but I have no idea if that’s true. (He’s totally reused an idea from here in another piece I can’t think of right now.)
“Reincarnation of a Lovebird” is a tribute to Charlie Parker which is about as out there as Mingus got at the time (to my knowledge). The begins so spastically – and borderline musique concrete – it’s hard to believe its Mingus, but a minute in it settles in (for the most part) to resemble something a lot closer to what we expect from Mingus, if not from Charlie Parker. (Though I must say I’ve listened to Mingus much more than Parker.) I think this is the original idea for “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, right? There’s that melody popping up at one point.
But what you think of this album likely comes down to the title track. There is, of course, a long aversion to spoken word in music. I am one of those people that definitely doesn’t normally like it. Or, rather, I should say that, if I must listen to spoken word, I usually want to listen to an entire album of it, not one track. But Shepherd’s narration is pretty poignant, relevant to jazz as much as it is to acting and comedy. And, as others have pointed out, it’s one of the frankest depictions of mental health problems of the 1950s. (Is it the frankest?) Moreover, the music Mingus created for the piece is some of his most interesting and out there of the era. But it’s hard to imagine the music without the narration or the narration without the music. So, I think that means I like it even though I was not inclined to when I first encountered it. It’s certainly one of the most unique things in his catalogue that I’m aware of.
A great album full of wonderful music, and worth it even if you’re put off by the idea of a spoken word piece.