Hit it!

Having regained the keys to the creepy old coop that is Bebop and American Jazz, I continue to have a rather jolly old time, careening up and down the dust-laden corridors, bursting into chambers and ransacking the wardrobes and dressers within.

One day, I’ll have to approach this in a more methodical and altogether grown up fashion (and will no doubt be much the better for it), but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying haphazardly opening drawers and picking out whatever takes my fancy.

This, for instance…

Pithecanthropus Erectus

The thrumming stand-up bass of Charlie Mingus is one of Life’s great irresistible sounds, always, and this record has been fun to explore. I picked it up in my dying days at eMusic and as with many of those purchases haven’t really done it justice until now.

The title track is the stand out pick, brimming as it is with playfully chaotic ideas and a captivating charm, but the whole record is apparently a significant one. Released in 1956, (the year after Miles Davis formed his first quintet and engaged Coltrane), Mingus abandoned his normal practice of meticulously compiled sheet music and taught each part to his band by ear. If you remember that mesmeric, impenetrable picture of Coltrane’s Giant Steps pieces put to paper, this makes some sense, but was apparently ground-breaking at the time.

(Can’t help thinking of Beefheart whistling and pounding the piano lid incoherently to a bewildered Drumbo a decade later – it all comes back to Beefheart, even when it doesn’t).


The liner notes claim that that the title track is a tonal poem (I looked it up, I’m none the wiser…) dedicated to the ascent and descent of mankind, which sounds to these post-punk ears more than a little pretentious. But maybe in those innocent pre- Roger Dean days, it didn’t sound quite so silly. And, for sure, there’s no navel-gazing on this record, just an insistent, self-aware strut – an ode to Man who has not only learnt to stand on two legs and walk but to promenade up and down the avenue, tipping his hat to the ladies and flipping dimes to the shoeshine.

The stagger into chaos part is not really a dark descent but a rather splendid going-to-seed, as Jackie McLean honks and yowls from the side-lines only gradually does Mingus’s bassline stumble and eventually disintegrate over the course of ten glorious, disorderly minutes.

If you think about some of the painful, apocalyptic howls that Coltrane and various other free-jazz souls would put to record only a few years later, this is all a bit naïve and much more fun for it. It’s not exactly rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem, more like Thomas O’Malley and Scat Cat crashing through floor after floor of their own run-down Parisian mansion.

I can’t find anything from this line-up on YouTube but I did stumble across this wonderful clip from 1960 with an entirely different and perhaps more well-known band. It’s well worth watching. From the get-go, there’s a good six minutes of Bud Powell on piano which is quite the thing in itself but it also allows you to watch and hear Mingus, at the coalface in his busy workshop, without the more powerful brass section taking over.

Until they do, which is also pretty damn remarkable (if only for the magnificently goateed Eric Dolphy’s evening suit / sandals combo). Hit! It!