CHARLES MINGUS Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961 (Rhino 6-discs R2-7287).
JOHN COLTRANE The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse 4-discs IMPD-4-232).
ERIC DOLPHY was a meteor. He rocketed through jazz at the highest level from 1958 to 1964, when, at 36, he died suddenly in Berlin under circumstances that remain mysterious.
He bounced wildly from one octave to another and back in the middle of phrases and always articulated notes with precision in his solos no matter what the furioso run or shriek. He was, quite literally, astonishing -- and remains so, 30 years after his death. And we can see now, from the two greatest jazz reissue boxes of 1997, he was present at some of the greatest moments of jazz in the past half-century.
There are no live jazz records of the past 40 years that are any greater than John Coltrane's 1961 Nov. 1 to 5 stint at the Village Vanguard, now preserved with historic and mind-boggling wholeness on "The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings" -- or Charles Mingus' "Mingus at Antibes," from a July 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival appearance. "Mingus at Antibes" wasn't released on record until 1979, and is now part of a magnificent Rhino package of his creative explosion for Atlantic Records from 1956 to 1961.
Old music? Just a tired repackaging of past glory? Hardly. There is no newer music in jazz records in 1997 than these truly historic boxed sets. There is no challenge to the static ironies and conservatorship of contemporary jazz greater than these two sets of a couple of jazz's greatest creators caught in the best period of their creative lives.
To listen to John Coltrane live at the Village Vanguard in 1961 and Charles Mingus' hilarious and glorious voyage of musical discovery in that period is to be embarrassed by both the timidity and the careerist cunning of jazz in the Marsalis years. This is music that wasn't at all certain where it was going but it sure as hell was going to go there, no matter what the crowd or critical reaction.
There are moments on Coltrane "Live at the Village Vanguard" when the confused, tepid applause that greeted these landmark performances is even more shocking than the music. (An annihilating review, later, by John Tynan is often credited with making Coltrane more conservative for the next year or so and/or driving Dolphy out of his group.) In the five years of music captured on "Passions of a Man," Charles Mingus became an active jazz volcano, combining the most basic blues forms and the most exploratory solos in some of the most thrilling (but also, at times, funniest) jazz ever recorded.
Old music? Hardly. Why, then, would a four-disc set like Coltrane's "The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings" instantly take its place on the Billboard jazz best-seller list immediately upon release? It could be argued -- and probably should be -- that the need for jazz masterpieces of such ambition and adventure and authenticity is far greater in 1997 than it was in 1961.
The incredible progress of Charles Mingus' workshops from 1956 to 1961 remains to this day a cavalcade of invigorating energy and the most elemental humor and beauty, capable of reinventing all jazz listeners who give their ears to it. It was Mingus who instinctively understood that the energy music of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor would eventually blow itself apart unless it could be structured and given plausible emotions. But it was also Mingus in those five years who understood how badly his own ideas needed the passionate, eruptive virtuosity of Booker Ervin, Eric Dolphy and, to a lesser extent, Ted Curson.
The exchange of Mingus and his extraordinary musicians from 1956 to 1961 was just about perfect. He gave them coherent structure, artistic purpose and faith in their rawest expressiveness. They gave him energy and adventure and a joy in performance they didn't always equal on their own. In its finest live moments -- "Mingus at Antibes" -- his two greatest saxophonists, Booker Ervin and Eric Dolphy, play off each other's screams and blistering phrases in successive solos. On "Folk Forms No. 1" they engage in frantic chases and intertwinings that have to be heard to be believed. This is the contrapuntal freedom of New Orleans traditionalism with all the added sonic and harmonic freedom New Jazz had wrought.
It was Ervin who brought Mingus' music to another level. Mingus began right out in 1956 with a minor masterpiece, "Pithecanthropus Erectus." But his musicians, who included Jackie McLean and Mal Waldron, are still tied closer to be-bop than to Mingus' avant-Ellingtonisms. Everything is either brilliant sarcasm, trivia or protoplasm until Ervin shows up in 1959 -- even another masterpiece called "Haitian Fight Song," which, for all its sinister brilliance, still doesn't have the soloists who can fulfill the conception. (As good as they are, including Buffalo's Wade Legge on piano.)
Then, with the "Blues and Roots" session in 1959 (the year he also recorded that amazing music for Columbia, "Mingus Ah Um" and "Mingus Dynasty"), Booker Ervin, John Handy and Jackie McLean open the floodgates and the music becomes historic and tidal in its power.
Actually, I prefer some of his second thoughts on these compositions from some later Impulse records. "E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too" slows down and swings harder as the later, retitled "Hora Decubitus," for instance. But these recordings still have every bit of their original power.
Almost all of the music from the live "Mingus at Antibes" is classic, and the music on "Mingus Oh Yeah" includes some of the funniest racial satire in jazz ("Eat That Chicken," "Passions of a Man") as well as some of Mingus' most searing music ("Devil Woman"). The added disc of Mingus in conversation with producer Nesuhi Ertegun points out to those who didn't know that, like so many musicians (Count Basie, Sonny Rollins), the timbres and rhythms of Mingus' speech are totally analogous to those of his music.
It's a monumental jazz box, marred only by some notes that seem more impressed by Mingus' more standard compositional ambitions than his symbiotic genius with some of the greatest jazz soloists of his time. Rating:**** 1/2 .
To hear, for the first time ever in one box, almost all of John Coltrane's amazing music from the Village Vanguard in 1961 is to understand how riotously fluid Coltrane's performances were at the time. He only recorded nine titles on the four discs -- some, like "India" and "Spiritual," four times each -- but the differences in each performance can be immense. That great masterpiece of churning invention, "Chasin' the Trane," is played two other times with entirely different shapes and springing from different melodies.
The opportunity to hear Coltrane and Dolphy together for the most significant time of their recording lives is to hear modern jazz saxophone playing at its summit. But almost equally impressive at this stage is pianist McCoy Tyner, who found a way to free himself completely from the founderings and insecurities of "My Favorite Things." He could now simultaneously create the trance out of which Coltrane spoke in tongues and do his own ecstatic testifying while Elvin Jones' drums thundered in polyrhythmic support.
At the moment captured indelibly by the Complete Village Vanguard recordings, John Coltrane was reinventing jazz in his own image. The incandescence and even the shock of the original remains undiminished, and can't help but be a reproof to every jazz musician now basking in the relative creative ease of the Marsalis era. Rating:***** .