When introducing non jazzers to jazz there are a couple of ways many jazz aficionados do so. One is showing something similar to the type of music a non jazz fan is into. Something that is not vastly different from what they like. The other route is just showing them the history of jazz and slowly easing them into it all. If you go the history route, you’d probably have certain tunes you’d show them from all the different genres or maybe you choose a collection that illustrates the history of jazz. Well, if you want to show the history of jazz a perfect way to do so is just listening to Charles Mingus’ Ah Um.
Ah Um is Mingus’ debut at Columbia and throughout the album Mingus finds clever ways to pay homage to Jazz’s past. With a lineup of John Handy, Shafi Hadi, and Booker Ervin on sax, pianist Horace Parlan, drummer Dannie Richmond, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombone and of course Charles Mingus on bass this group is not lacking virtuosity. This album is a bona fide classic and has been rereleased many times since its original release in 1959. The version I am reviewing contains the original nine tracks beginning with “Better Get It In Your Soul” and concluding with “Jelly Roll”. As usual I will emphasize on a couple of tunes instead of doing a track by track analysis. Let’s begin with the opening track “Better Get It In Your Soul”.
“Better Get It In Your Soul” starts with a few bass notes, some bluesy piano riffs, and a few sporadic horns. The melody comes out with a strong bluesy feel. The use of a couple of horns gives the band a bigger fuller sound. It gives you the impression that you are listening to a big band despite the fact that the group is not nearly that big. Reminds me of some of Horace Silver’s writing which has a similar impact. The first horn solo fits like a glove and Mingus wrote in some good hits to accompany it. Following that solo The trombone have a section of music accompanied by a developed piano riff. Then we have another horn solo with some hand clapping in the background. This gives us the feeling of being in a church for a moment. Drummer then trades bars with all the sections of the group. The song concludes by coming back to the earlier melody. This song was very thoughtfully composed. It’s not just a simple chart everyone blows over. There are specific hits and riffs written in so it sounds like fully developed piece. Being more bluesy and soul based makes it more relatable and enjoyable for even the casual jazz fan which only increases its popularity and accessibility.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a beautiful ballad written for Lester Young. Very somber, but beautiful song. Following “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is one of my personal favorites “Boogie Stop Shuffle”. It has a strong boogie woogie feel the moment it starts. The horns establish the boggie woogie feel along with the piano at first. The melody is catchy and just grooves so hard. Both sax and piano solos keep this feeling going in their solos. I especially like Horace Parlan’s solo but that might just be my bias as a pianist coming out. The song is short but sweet and gives you the perfect amount to enjoy, but not get sick of the boogie woogie style clocking in at 3:43.
“Self-Portrait In Three Colors” is another ballad and is followed by “Open Letter To Duke” which is a song that pays homage to Duke Ellington. “Open Letter To Duke” is definitely a livelier song and more uptempo than “Self-Portrait In Three Colors” is. After “Open Letter To Duke” comes “Bird Calls”. This song has been debated that it is an homage to Charlie Parker, but Mingus himself has denied that claim. He says it’s merely a reference to the beginning of the tune where the horns sound like birds. I especially enjoy the frenetic pass and the solos which fit right into the world of bebop.
The final three tunes continue to have “hidden” meaning and purpose. “Fables of Faubus” is a song written to mock Orval Faubus and his racist views on segregation. The lyrics are not on this record, but can be found on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. Following “Fables of Faubus” is “Pussy Cat Dues” which is just an old-fashioned tune with blues influence, and some New Orleans sounding lines. The final tune on my edition is ‘Jelly Roll” which is inspired by Jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. It definitely has the feel of ‘Jelly Roll Morton” music. With the melodic lines, the style of piano being played, the solo style, and even the harmony used.
Overall this album is a must own for all music lovers. And as I stated earlier, it is perfect for showing many different jazz styles and jazz history. The compositions are very well written and the way the songs are constructed leads to an enjoyable listening experience. With tunes based on the styles and lives of Duke Ellington, Lester, Young, and Jelly Roll Morton how could this album have gone wrong? If you don’t own this album already do yourself a favor and buy it immediately. Any respectable record store will have a couple of copies available.