For Harry Carney, Charles Mingus, 1974
Ah, what a band. The only acceptable Mingus drummer, Dannie Richmond, had come back after a lengthy break, encouraged by the earlier recruitment of the pan-stylistic George Adams on tenor, Don Pullen on piano and soon joined by the young Jack Walrath on trumpet. It was a quintet to match the bassist’s great early small groups.
I’d listened intently to the late ’50s and early ’60s stuff, then lost track a bit, so it seemed a great boon to find the man, contracted anew to Atlantic, had recorded enough in this studio session for two LPs of mainly new work. Seasoned by a fair bit of touring, they had taken the measure of the compositions, and the results were as good as anything Mingus had ever done.
It’s the small group work that best conveys the essence of his music: He was never quite the orchestrator he wanted to be. And this was its final flowering. There are stupendous, complex pieces here like Sue’s Changes, whose marvellous twists and turns run for 17 minutes. But I’ve always been struck by this threnody for Ellington’s faithful baritone player, Harry Carney, written by Mingus’s arranger Sy Johnson immediately after Carney’s death in 1974. It’s a slow blues, riding on a six-note bass figure doubled on the piano. The simple arrangement has each of the four soloists – Adams, Pullen, Walrath, Mingus – beginning in dialogue with Richmond, using mallets, then raising the intensity a notch as the bass comes back in. Although they often played a single piece for half an hour on stage, the whole thing is over in six minutes. And in a group that could deliver extended bouts of exultation, the four, and the drummer, maintain the elegiac mood here while still displaying their contrasting styles, and compressing an impressive amount of invention into their few choruses each.
It’s a gorgeous little tailpiece, the final track on Changes 2, and that always seemed to right place for it in the 2LP sequence. It doesn’t get noticed much – both Mingus’ biographers dispose of it in a sentence or two, perhaps because he didn’t write it. But the song is a match for Mingus’ own famous threnody for Lester Young. And it takes on poignancy now from the great man’s sad decline from a degenerative neurological condition soon after this session. Five years later, it was time for musical tributes to Mingus himself to begin after his death – a stream that continues.
Theoretically, I could have heard this group live, and I’ve always had a hankering to hear what they sounded like. Pullen, Adams and Richmond went on to form one of the most rewarding bands of the 1980s. (Curiously, all three also died in their fifties, but the fine bass player who completed that quartet, Cameron Brown, is happily still with us.) That was a stupendous unit on stage, which made one wonder even more about their time with Mingus. Now, in one of those odd, delayed surfacings from radio archives, we know. The second pair of CDs on a live quadruple package released last year captures a whole concert at Bremen in 1975, playing mostly the Changes repertoire. It’s a magnificent two hours of music. Like the other tunes, the version of For Harry Carney there follows precisely the same arrangement, down to the sequence of solos – a reminder of how closely Mingus controlled his music, while managing to combine that with making it sound as wild as you please. That single live show is a precious thing to lay hands on after all this time. But while the soloing is brilliant, there is no way my mind will alter now: this beautifully concise studio reading I first heard back in 1975 is this little tune’s definitive treatment.
Here’s the bandcamp link for the Bremen sets.
Why the No 10?
This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
And I’m going to collect them all on this page.