Monday, April 6, 2009

Listening Session: Charlie Mingus, Tijuana Moods

From Mingus's own liner notes on the back cover: "All the music in this album were written during a very blue period in my life. I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her with an expected dream in Tijuana. But not even Tijuana could satisfy.... I walked from tacos to tacos, from tequila, salt and lime to all the hot chili peppers there were to stomach, throwing away all the money I had earned and more, trying to forget the blues that I brought with me.... It actually ends in a contest between Danny and myself to see who could outdo who in Tijuana's tequila-wine-women-song-and-dance. Danny lost: he was very hungry; I was starved."

The liner notes are illuminating for the personal history that gave rise to the music. Listening to the album without that knowledge, one would never guess that it originated from a very “blue” period in Mingus’s life. The music is raucous, yet disciplined, in typical Mingus fashion. The sights and sounds of Tijuana—complete with corny castanets and mariachi pastiches—are artfully weaved into the gospel-blues-Ellingtonian-swing structures that define Mingus’s work.

The album is plain fun to listen to. But there are also two lessons that I take away from listening to this album. Like a lot of gospel and soul musicians, Mingus tackles his deep melancholy head-on with musical exuberance. What I imagine lifted Mingus from the blues he was suffering wasn't the trip to Tijuana, but rather the act of composing and playing the songs that comprise the album.

The second lesson is how the most successful innovators work within an established framework. As mentioned in a previous post, Mingus successfully bridges the traditional and modern sides of jazz like no other. His compositions are unmistakably grounded in the blues, gospel, and traditional jazz. This offers the listener a base from which to take off with Mingus on his musical flight. As much as Mingus embraces traditional musical forms, his songs usually fly past the boundaries that define traditional song forms. There is no mistaking a Mingus work from anything that preceded it. It is when musicians free themselves from that traditional framework (e.g., late Coltrane, 12-tone Schoenberg) that they also disconnect from most listeners. The totally free flights may have meaning to the avant-garde musician and a few others, but those of us who must start off on familiar musical terrain are usually lost before the first few bars are complete. It’s like trying to arrive at a destination without knowing one’s starting point.
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