Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus

Columbia, 1959


REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Constructed as a tribute to his musical influences and mentors, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um is both joyfully exuberant and methodically disciplined. Released in 1959, it was also an album where Mingus brought jazz to the political realm with the track “Fables Of Faubus,” a response to former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who adamantly opposed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school integration. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Those unfamiliar with Mingus’ work will likely recognize the first two songs on Mingus Ah Um in at least some form. “Better Git It In Your Soul” opens the album up with a joyous “oh yeah!” in the background. Buoyed by Mingus’ virtuosic bass playing, “Soul” harkens back to early 20th century jump blues and gospel. The next track, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” is bluesier, highlighted by John Handy’s tenor saxophone.

Regarded as a stern perfectionist with a sometimes mercurial temper, to describe Mingus as difficult is one of the greatest understatements in jazz. Still, difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean inaccessible – and the vast majority of Mingus Ah Um proves that by being one of the most accessible “essential” jazz recordings. “Pussy Cat Blues” is a great example of Mingus’ power as a bandleader: the music is breezy, effortlessly transporting a listener into a darkened jazz club. But the effortless sounds of Horace Parlan’s piano against John Handy’s smooth clarinet could only be achieved by masters.

Listening to “Fables of Faubus,” one can’t help but marvel at how jazz was once as popular as rock and hip-hop. And like rock and hip-hop, the savviest of artists could use their medium to bring about political change. You can’t help but envision the music being played in the background of an “odd couple”-like sitcom or “fish out of water” movie of today. But that mocking tone is at the heart of its brilliance.

In a little more than a year, Mingus released another masterpiece (Mingus Dynasty) and one of the seminal live jazz albums of all time, Mingus At Antibes. Out of these three masterpieces, Mingus Ah Um edges out Dynasty and Antibes, but not by much. Assured, bold and massive in its ambitious scope, Mingus Ah Um is the crowning achievement of jazz’s most celebrated bassist.

Rating: A

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