: Blues and Roots - Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus: Blues and Roots

Album #34 - March 1960

Episode date - February 21, 2024

The Alternative Top 40
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    Trix are for kids, but jazz? Not so much. Kids aren’t particularly discerning regarding what is good for them, and their taste in music follows suit.

    When I was a kid, I listened almost exclusively to the pop charts. The direct simplicity of the songs and redundancy of the radio playlist determined my tastes for me, until the eventual dominance of albums over singles changed everything. I started my album collection in the early seventies, when I was twelve years old. That was how I happened to come upon a jazz collection that featured “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” and I fell in love with the track.

    Charles Mingus was the perfect portal to jazz music because his style is broad, covering R&B, hard blues and even gospel. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” combined all three, with Mingus shouting and exhorting the band to a breakdown of handclaps, before reiterating the fantastic opening riff. The song is joyous while making you want to dance and clap along, and it made me want to hear more. I started collecting Mingus records when I could find them, which then led me to explore other artists until I became a bonafide jazz fan, without the fanaticism required of an aficionado.

    “Blues and Roots” remains my all-time favorite Charles Mingus album. Every track is built around perfectly nuanced arrangements that provide the skeleton for inspired improvisation. Mingus pushes his players hard to ensure that the energy never ebbs. He pulls from West African rhythm structures that rock hard while maintaining their swing. Before “Blues and Roots,” Mingus put his personal stamp on everything he touched, but this album takes things a step further. Even a simple blues like “Cryin’ Blues” moves in a way that clearly captures his unique spirit. “Moanin’” is another example of an exquisitely nuanced arrangement with powerful crescendos that push the band toward ecstasy. “Tensions” take the album theme to an intense and somewhat dark summit, which is instantly dissipated by the playful melody of “My Jelly Roll Soul.” Many original jazz tracks are saddled with confusing or unimaginative song titles, but “Blues and Roots” ends with my all-time favorite, “E’s Flat Ahs Flat Too,” another energetic romp that leaves you almost exhausted by the impassioned drive of Mingus’ bass playing.

    Having listened to this album for ages, I’ve come to hear it as a theme album of sorts. The songs directly address the ups and downs of the Black experience, and they take you through a cycle. I think of it as ‘roadhouse jazz’, with a stylistic purity that conveys everyday life. Here, he is still taking cues from Duke Ellington by writing thematic material about his own culture, but he pushes it further with a raw, bluesy edge that transcends jazz, or broadens its definition. If you happen to be a music fan who finds most jazz to be intimidating or outside of your scope of interest, I highly recommend “Blues and Roots” as a point of entry. It just might change your mind.

    Featured Tracks:

    Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting

    Cryin' Blues

    Moanin

    Tensions

    My Jelly Roll Soul

    E's Flat Ah's Flat Too

    March 1960 – Billboard Did Not Chart

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