Charles Mingus’s scores speak with a preacher’s conviction and moves like a sinner’s dance. The compositions on ‘Blues & Roots’ invoke the spirit of his youth - his formative years spent in church. And the six tunes he harvested from that fertile inspiration make it seem as if “the Holy Ghost were riding in the air,” as James Baldwin wrote in ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’. There is an energy and power to the record that is deeply spiritual. Not the fear of God often called spirituality. But a human soul.
Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting opens the record like a door into the song’s titular meeting. Dannie Richmond’s hi-hat keeps time while the saxes and trombones shout over one another. As if the players could not wait another second to pour out their souls. Horace Parlan swings the beat on the piano. His chords are neither heavy-handed, nor blunt. They hit like Ali’s jabs - quick and pointed and hard. And beneath it all is Mingus, running the bass’s neck like a dash. His lines don’t walk, but roll through the track. As smooth as the contours of the tune.
Pepper Adams’s baritone sax ushers in Moanin’ with a riff hard as iron and strong as an ocean current. The altos and tenors bob and weave around its path as it charges through the track. Head lowered and eyes narrowed, bracing itself for the collision. This is a riff for and of the gut. It pulls no punches, holds nothing back. And only retreats to charge again. Adams runs the rhythm section’s ground as if he were stalking his territory. The other saxophonists - Jackie McLean and John Handy on alto, Booker Ervin on tenor - solo excellently. But they are at their best when their lines coalesce. And work together to manoeuvre in and out of Adams’s playing. Emphasising the punch of Mingus’s composition and the propulsion of the rhythm section. Really driving the nail in.
Mingus was a composer as well as a player. Jazz repertory is a fine art in and of itself. But it was not Mingus’s home. Each of the six tracks on ‘Blues & Roots’ came from the man’s imagination. And that imagination spurred his band on. His players bring all the passion of the blues and Spirit to the record. Even when they’re playing the riffs, as on Moanin’ or Tensions, they play with all the fire that more egotistical virtuosos reserve for their own solos. And when they do solo, they don’t run from the score. But draw from its well, and play what best lifts the music to Heaven.
There is no fear of the Lord or Beelzebub on ‘Blues & Roots,’ despite the religious experiences that inspired the record. On My Jelly Roll Soul there is even a splash of humour in the rhythm’s big band swing. Like the band are laughing at any thought of damnation or being saved. Mingus solos almost with a knowing wink. Staying up at the higher end of his fretboard for maximum comic effect. That is not to say the music should be mocked. Mingus was a master of fun. His brilliance was neither stupefying nor grim. It drew people to the edge of their seats instead of blasting them backwards. With each soul smiling up to the bandstand or at the turntable.
In ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ Florence Grimes says “I done read the Bible, too, and it tells me you going to know the tree by its fruit.” Mingus’s records were some of the most celebratory, righteous fruit to grow from jazz. Out of that genre grew orchards of LPs and musicians. But very few can claim to have been as fruitful as Charles Mingus. On ’Blues & Roots,’ he harvested a record of joy. It grew from his youth spent in church. But it’s not a record of the church. It is of life. A rejoicing in all the dirt and light of humanity.