It is a thankless and impossible task to sum up the career of Charles Mingus on only two CDs; everyone knows that. But Rhino does have the advantage of being a licensing company, and they did roam far afield for material from most of the important sources, to Atlantic, Debut, Impulse!, United Artists, EmArcy, Mingus' custom Jazz Workshop label, even into the hard-to-crack vaults of Columbia. Instead of a sensible chronological approach, though, Rhino scrambles the sequencing into something incomprehensible. Nevertheless the newcomer to Mingus will get a colorful, varied, even powerful portrait of the irascible composer/bandleader/bassist. In addition to famous signature numbers like "Haitian Fight Song," "Better Get It in Your Soul," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and "Pithecanthropus Erectus," there are a pair of extended works, and odd side trips like a trio date with Duke Ellington
and Max Roach
. It might have been an indulgence on co-producer Hal Willner
's part to devote more than two-fifths of the space in what was supposed to be a Mingus primer to the huge 28-minute "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion" and a 25-minute live rendition of "Meditations on Integration." But it was a courageous indulgence, for "Cumbia"'s kaleidoscope of Colombian rhythms, big-band flourishes, extended improvisation, and weird vocal humor makes for a bold entryway into Mingus' world, and "Meditations," despite the poor sound, receives a provocative performance. Oddly, for a label that distributes Atlantic's archival material, Rhino only includes four Atlantic cuts, but with the complete Mingus Atlantic sessions from 1956-1961 now available in another Rhino box, perhaps that was the plan all along. As such, this is about as useful a relatively affordable Mingus sampler as there is on CD, which isn't saying much, actually.